1664: Sawny Douglas, Chevy Chaser

Add comment September 10th, 2020 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


SAWNY DOUGLAS

A Scottish Highwayman who laid England under toll, and took a Copy of “Chevy Chase” to Tyburn when he was hanged on 10th of September, 1664

SAWNY DOUGLAS, a Scotsman, was the son of a tanner, and born at Portpatrick in the shire of Galloway, where he lived till the unnatural Civil War broke out in 1641. Sawny at this time being very zealous on the side of the Kirk, and consequently against the King, entered himself into the service of the Parliament, was at the siege of Dundee, and boasted after that bloody action was over that he killed with his own hands no less than twenty-nine persons.

Those who have read the histories of that time will remember that Dundee was taken by storm, and that the garrison was put to the sword; which gave Sawny an opportunity to discover his cruelty.

After the restoration of King Charles II, when the Scots were reduced to obedience, Sawny found himself obliged to seek some other subsistence than the army.

He had now been a soldier about twenty years, and though he had never been advanced higher than to carry a halberd [i.e., a sergeant -ed.], yet he was something loth to lay down his commission. However, there was no opposing necessity, and he was obliged to submit, as well as many of his betters, who were glad they could come off thus, after having been so deeply concerned in the rebellion.

Coming into England, and being destitute of both money and bread, he was not long in resolving what course to take in order to supply himself. The highway, he thought, was as free for him as for anybody else, and he was both strong and desperate. But the question was, where should he get a horse and accoutrements? “What,” said he again, “should hinder my taking the first that comes in my way, and seems fit for my purpose?” Pursuant to this last resolution he kept on the main road, with a good crab-tree stick in his hand, till he saw a gentleman’s servant alone, well mounted, with pistols before him.

He had some question ready to ask, and after that another, till the poor footman was engaged in a discourse with him, and rode along gently by his side. At last Sawny observes an opportunity, and gives him an effectual knock on the pate, which, followed with four or five more, left him insensible on the ground, while our young adventurer rode off with the horse till he thought himself out of the way of any inquiry.

The first robbery he committed was in Maidenhead Thicket, in Berkshire, in those times a very noted haunt for highwaymen. The person he stopped was one Mr Thurston, at that time Mayor of Thornbury, in Gloucestershire. He got about eighteen pounds, and was so uncivil as to refuse the poor gentleman ten shillings to bear his charges home; which was all he required, and for which he begged very hard.

Another time he robbed the Duchess of Albemarle* of diamond rings to the value of two hundred pounds, besides a pearl necklace, rich bracelets and ear-rings. After this he came and took lodgings at the house of one Mr Knowles, an apothecary in Tuthil Street, Westminster, where he set up for a gentleman, appeared very fine, and made love to his landlord’s daughter, who was reputed to be a two thousand pounds fortune.

For some time he was very well received both by the young lady and her father; but when his money was gone, and they found him full of shifts, arts and evasions, they not only discarded him as a husband and son-in-law, but turned him fairly out of doors.

Sawny now took to the road again, and committed more robberies than before, ranging all over the north of England, and being often so fortunate as to escape justice when it pursued him. He moreover contracted a familiarity with Du Vall, the most generous-spirited highwayman that ever lived, which friendship continued till Death parted them by his deputy Jack Ketch.

Sawny’s last attempt was on the Earl of Sandwich,** who was afterwards admiral in the Dutch war, and unfortunately lost his life, together with his ship. This noble commander, having arms in the coach, resolved not to be insulted by a highwayman, and discharged a pistol into Sawny’s horse, which immediately dropping down under him, the servants came up and secured our bonny North Briton, who was thereupon committed to Newgate, and in less than a month after ordered for Tyburn.

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, a popular song that survives in several variants, tells the story of a great battle between Scotsmen and Englishmen — won by the Scottish side, as occurred in its likely real-life inspiration, the Battle of Otterburn (1388).

Much beloved on both halves of Britain, it survives in several variants to the present day. The ballad also directly inspired the naming of Chevy Chase, Maryland (which once contained a number of street names alluding to Otterburn), as well as the stage name of National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live comedian Cornelius Crane “Chevy” Chase.

While he was under sentence he behaved in a very profane and indecent manner, cursing the bellman for his bad English when he repeated the usual Memento the night before his execution. At St Sepulchre’s the next day, when the appointed ceremony was performed, instead of composing his countenance, and looking as a man in his condition ought to do, he only told the spectators that it was hard a man could not be suffered to go to the gallows in peace; and that he had rather be hanged twice over without ceremony, than once after this superstitious manner.

He read no Prayer Book, but carried the ballad of Chevy Chase [see sidebar -ed.] in his hand all the way to Tyburn. When he came thither he took no notice of the ordinary, but bid the hangman be speedy, and not make a great deal of work about nothing, or at most about a mere trifle. He died 10th of September, 1664, aged fifty-three, and was buried in Tyburn Road.

* There were only three legitimate Dukes of Albemarle. The first was ancient history, a casualty at Agincourt centuries before. Chronologically, this robbery victim should refer to the wife of the first Duke, who was also the great Roundhead commander — and indeed, the robber’s very own commander at Dundee — George Monck. However, the text might instead be an anachronistic invocation of the wife of the second Duke of Albemarle who attained notoriety, and great wealth, as the “Mad Duchess” even though she didn’t attain the title until 1669. These entries, especially the ones dating back to the 17th century, were full liable to crisscross the unmarked boundaries between history and legend.

** Not the Earl who gave us sammiches, but his ancestor.

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1908: Chester Gillette, A Place in the Sun inspiration

Add comment March 30th, 2020 Headsman

Theodore Dreiser‘s classic novel An American Tragedy was inspired by an infamous 1906 murder whose author, Chester Gillette, was electrocuted at Auburn Prison on this date in 1908.

It was a crime tailor-made for the burgeoning mass media, popular and pretty 20-year-old Grace Brown gone to work at the Cortland, N.Y. Gillette Skirt Factory where the owner’s nephew seduced and impregnated her.

That, of course, is our man Chester Gillette, who further distressed his lover by tomcatting around town, especially charging the love triangle with class rivalry with his rumored interest in a socialite while he stalled for time with Ms. Brown. Dreiser’s novel — which is freely available from the public domain — spins on this axis, although the real-life heiress in question put out an arch press release averring that “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … Our acquaintance was of … a limited duration.”

That was also true of Gillette’s acquaintance with Grace Brown. At length he induced the future mother of his child to elope to the Adirondacks upon the apparent prospect of finally regularizing their situation. Instead, after making a couple of stops in upstate New York, they paused on July 11 at Big Moose Lake for a nice canoe outing. While out on the water, Gillette bashed his lover’s head with his tennis racket and forced her into the water to drown.

Letters the two had exchanged would establish that Gillette knew Brown could not swim … and the fact that he’d brought his whole suitcase with him for this supposed day trip would establish his premeditated intent. Gillette schlepped his stuff along with his guilty conscience through the woods to another lake and checked into a hotel under his real name(!). He was as careless with his coverup, alibi, and escape as he had been with his heart; Brown’s body was recovered the very next day and the trail led directly back to Gillette, who was not difficult to find and couldn’t stick to a story — alternately claiming that the drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something that happened when he wasn’t there at all.

The snake was public enemy number one by the time he came to his trial, making the case a national sensation. Dreiser improved it to literature in 1925, and it was such a hit that he was immediately called upon to adapt it for the stage. A version hit the silver screen as soon as 1931, but its best-known rendering is the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, who portrayed the young lovers.

It’s had an enduring appeal for the century since; rumors of Grace Brown’s ghost haunting Big Moose Lake brought the case to the Unsolved Mysteries television program in the 1990s, and an award-winning 2003 novel A Northern Light centers around a fictional friend of Grace Brown’s. There’s even an A Place in the Sun opera.

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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1695: Highwayman Biss

1 comment March 12th, 2019 Headsman

This ballad transmits to posterity via the Pepys collection of late 17th century ephemera stashed by that famed diarist Samuel Pepys. (In these pages, we’ve already met Mr. Pepys lurking about various executions.)

The Penitent Highway-man: Or, The Last Farewel of Mr. Biss, Who was Born at Shaftsbury, in Wiltshire, and was arrain’d and found guilty, and accordingly received Sentence of Death, and was Executed at Salisbury, on the 12th of March, 1695.

To the Tune of, Russel’s Farewel, &c.

Good People all I pray attend,
and listen now to me,
A sad Relation here I send
of Biss in Shaftsbury:
A noted Highway-man he was
who on the Road did ride,
And at the length it came to pass,
he was condemn’d and dy’d.

When he was to his Tryal brought,
and at the Bar did stand,
He for no kind of favour sought,
but there held up his Hand,
Declaring to the pantient Judge,
who was to try him then,
He should not bear him any grudge,
he wan’t the worst of Men.

He said, The Scriptures I fulfill’d,
though I this Life did lead,
For when the Naked I beheld,
I clothed them with speed:
Sometimes in Cloth and Winter-frize,
sometimes in Russet-gray;
The Poor I fed, the Rich likewise
I empty sent away.

What say you now my honour’d Lord,
what harm was there in this?
Rich wealthy Misers was abhorr’d
by brave free-hearted Biss.
I never robb’d nor wrong’d the Poor,
as well it doth appear;
Be pleas’d to favour me therefore,
and be not too severe.

Upon the Road a Man I met,
was posting to a Jayl,
Because he could not pay his Debt,
nor give sufficient Bayl:
A kind and loving Friend he found,
that very day of me,
Who paid the Miser forty Pound,
and set the Prisoner free.

Tho’ he had got the Guinneys bright,
and put them in his Purse,
I follow’d him that very night,
I could not leave him thus;
Mounting my prancing Steed again,
I crost a point of land,
Meeting the Miser in a lane,
where soon I bid him stand:

You borrow’d forty Pounds, you know,
of me this very day,
I cannot trust, before you go
I must have present pay:
With that I seiz’d & search’d him round,
and rifl’d all his store,
Where straight I got my forty Pound,
with twenty Guinneys more.

The Judge he made him this reply,
Your Joaks are all in vain,
By Law you are condemn’d to Dye,
you will no Pardon gain,
Therefore, Repent, repent with speed,
for what is gone and past,
Tho’ you the Poor did clothe and feed,
you suffer must at last.

That word was like a fatal sword,
it pierc’d him to the heart;
The Lord for Mercy he implor’d,
as knowing he must part
With all his Friends and Pleasures too,
to be as I have said,
At Salsbury to Peoples view,
a sad Example made.

His melting Eyes did over-flow
with penitential Tears,
To see his dismal Overthrow,
just in his strength of Years.
O kind and loving Friends, he cry’d,
take warning now by me,
Who must the pains of Death abide,
this day in Salsbury.

In grief and sorrow now I pass
out of the World this day,
The latter minute’s in the glass,
therefore good People pray,
That as this painful Life I leave,
the Lord may pity take,
And in his arms my Soul receive,
even for his Mercies sake.

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1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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1530: Johnnie Armstrong, border reiver

Add comment July 5th, 2018 Headsman

Scottish “border reiver” John Armstrong of Gilnockie was hanged on this date in 1530 with his followers at Caerlanrig, without benefit of trial.

The job description of the border reiver was to, well, reave the border. These mounted raiders exploited the wide gaps in sovereignty that opened along the ill-controlled England-Scotland border throughout the 16th century (their heyday) and indeed for centuries prior. They plundered vulnerable* farmers both north and south of the notional line. Sometimes the prize was livestock; other times, the “black rent” due your basic protection racket would suffice.

Their presence left an indelible imprint on the Anglo-Scottish marches, from the farmhouse fortresses called bastle houses to provisions in the “March Law” governing the manner of permissible counter-raiding.

Nettlesome as they were, they also stood useful mercenaries hired out for a number of the era’s battles; notably, English-hired reivers held off a much larger Scottish incursion in 1542. Only with the union of the crowns under James VI of Scotland/James I of England were the reivers finally suppressed.**

Johnny/Johnnie Armstrong, the younger brother of Thomas, Laird of Mangerton, is perhaps the most lasting legend among them — thanks to the signal boost he would later receive from Sir Walter Scott. Chief of a reiver band 160 strong, Armstrong made himself enough of a headache for English-Scottish diplomacy that the Scots king James V resorted to treachery to eliminate him. Having dialed up the frontier “prince” for a meeting, James simply had the sharp-dressed marauder arrested and summarily hanged when the reiver came to call. Thirty-six of his fellow reivers died with him.

Johnny Armstrong is the subject and the title of a notable child ballad (no. 169) whose lyrics can be perused in their entirety here; several renditions of its climactic third chapter can be found in the usual places.

John murdred was at Carlinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotlands heart was never sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die.

Because they savd their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie livd on the border-syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

* “Vulnerable” mostly meant, neither in the ambit of a powerful protector, nor of the reiver’s own clan.

** A subsequent echo of the border reivers — in the same vein and the same region, but clearly distinct from them — emerged later in the 17th century in the form of the moss troopers.

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1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolavogue” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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1829: John Stacey, in Portsmouth town

Add comment August 3rd, 2017 Headsman

A barbarous, foul, & horrid deed
I shortly will recite,
Which did occur in Portsmouth town
Upon a Sunday night;
An aged man of eighty years,
His housekeeper likewise,
Were there most basely murdered,
By a monster in disguise.

All in the night, so dark and drear,
He entrance did obtain,
And with a deadly hammer he
Beat out the old man’s brains,
His throat he cut from ear to ear,
Most horrible to view,
And streams of crimson blood did flow
The bed-room through and through.

The aged housekeeper likewise,
Lay butcher’d on the floor,
Her face and hands most cruelly
Were cut, and stabb’d full sore.
Her head it was nearly severed
From off her body quite.
Those who beheld it shivered,
So dreadful was the sight.

When at the bar the murderer stood,
He could not deny his guilt,
‘Twas clearly proved that he
The aged couples blood had spilt;
The Jury found him guilty,
And the Judge to him did say,
You must prepare to end your days,
Upon the gallows high.

Broadside ballad about double murderer John Stacey, hanged adjacent to the house of his victim on August 3, 1829

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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1707: Jack (Sam) Hall, chimney sweep and robber

1 comment December 17th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.

Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”

It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”

The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**

* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).

** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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