1778: Patrick McMullen, repeat deserter

Add comment September 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Patrick McMullen was hanged on the Philadelphia commons for deserting, repeatedly, the Continental Army.

This poor fellow had started off (promisingly enough for the colonies) by deserting the British.

Such documentation as remains easily accessible isn’t very detailed about his pre-war background; the British had recently passed a Recruiting Act authorizing press gangs to shanghai Scotsmen into the royal army, but that measure was only 99 days old at this time. There were also many Scots-Irish who had already immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony or thereabouts.

This Irishman, however, enlisted pre-1775 in the British 38th Regiment of Foot, deserted, presumably served in a Continental Army unit at some point thereafter, and then by 1778 was back in British colors for the Battle of Monmouth, after which he deserted once again. Maybe he even changed teams four times, instead of twice.

Don Hagist is the author of the forthcoming book British Soldiers, American War.

This sort of “treachery” was not at all unusual.

“A good number of men switched sides, some several times, during the war,” said Don Hagist of the fascinating British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. “For many of them it did not impugn their reputations as soldiers; for example, many British prisoners of war escaped from captivity, joined in the American army as a means to get close to the front lines, then deserted again to rejoin the British army.

“At least, that is the story they’d give when brought to trial. Even when acquitted, sometimes these same men deserted yet again. When McMullen returned to the British army, he may have given the popular story that he was kidnapped by Bostonians and carried away from the garrison. This happened to a number of British soldiers in 1774 and early 1775; some turned up years later and gave their stories in court.”

McMullen had the bad luck to have to give this story to a court in Philaelphia at the time of that patriotic city’s maximum hostility following the British occupation.

Philadelphia’s Revolutionary military governor at this time was Benedict Arnold — still two years from his infamous betrayal, but even now finding himself stressed by the revolutionary extremism of his charges. Never a fire-eater himself, Arnold personally wrote to the Continental Congress with his own pitch for showing McMullen a bit of brotherly love, vouchsafing the view that our deserter’s culpability “is in his [Arnold’s] opinion insufficient” to warrant execution.

A Congressional committee respectfully disagreed, judging McMullen “a person of a most atrocious character” and directed that the hanging proceed.

Short review of these volumes about Revolutionary War desertion.

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1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

3 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

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1780: Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s handler

October 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, the honorable British Major John Andre got what Benedict Arnold had coming to him.

Piqued that his (quite considerable) brilliance in the field did not earn honors he thought his due, General Benedict Arnold contrived to betray West Point to the British during the American Revolution — the plot that made his name a synonym for treachery.

As the scheme ripened, the turncoat asked Sir Henry Clinton for “a personal interview with an officer that you can confide in.”

Enter Clinton’s adjutant John Andre, head of British Special Intelligence.

The dashing officer, well-liked in society on either side of the permeable divide between Tories and Patriots on the continent, slipped into Haverstraw, N.Y. to make the arrangements. On his way back — when he already thought himself safely clear of American-held territory — he was nabbed with the incriminating documents.

The narrowly-averted betrayal was mirrored by the narrowest of escapes: luckily for Benedict Arnold, Andre was received in custody by a subordinate officer of his, whose initial report to Arnold alerted the general to his danger and enabled him to escape to the British a whisker ahead of the law.

Treason, of the blackest dye, was yesterday discovered. General Arnold, who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private and public obligation, was about to deliver up that important post into the hands of the enemy. Such an event must have given the American cause a dangerous, if not a fatal wound; happily the treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it, afford the most convincing proofs that the liberties of America are the object of Divine protection.

It was a gentlemanly war, and Andre didn’t seem like the guy to hang in the whole exchange. But his argument before a court-martial that he was merely availing “an advantage taken in war” by agreeing to talk to an enemy general who wanted to hand them the keys to a fort didn’t fly: he’d been behind enemy lines, out of uniform, sneaking around. That made him a spy.

And the British refused to obtain Andre’s liberty by trading the man the Americans really wanted to execute.

Instead, by year’s end, the hero of Saratoga was commanding redcoats in the field — perhaps a little nervously; when he asked a captured American what might happen to him should he be taken, the reply was “Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”

John Andre was left holding the bag, to the dismay of just about everyone American and British alike. This extended account of the luckless major’s last moments* is from the pen of Continental Army surgeon James Thacher.

Major Andre is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged…

The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency [George Washington] and his staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful … Major Andre walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most comformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness, he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his had and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.” He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands.

Thus died, in the bloom of life, the accomplished Major Andre, the pride of the royal army, and the valued friend of Sir Henry Clinton. He was about twenty-nine years of age, in his person well proportioned, tall, genteel and graceful. His mien respectable and dignified. His countenance mild, expressive and prepossessing, indicative of an intelligent and amiable mind. … considered as a skilful, brave and enterprising officer, and he is reported to have been benevolent and humane to our people who have been prisoners in New York. … The heart of sensibility mourns when a life of so much worth is sacrified on a gibbet. General Washington was called to discharge a duty from which his soul revolted; and it is asserted that his hand could scarcely command his pen, when signing the warrant for the execution of Major Andre. … Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for Andre, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.

Andre makes a sort of loyalist counterpart to Nathan Hale. Interestingly, Thacher’s account — in which he uses his old diaries for a book that was published in 1823 — footnotes an extended narration of Nathan Hale in a comparative vein, complaining that “whilst almost every historian of the American Revolution has celebrated the virtues and lamented the fate of Andre, Hale has remained unnoticed, and it is scarcely known that such a character ever existed.” Today, in terms of their public recognizability, the two are rather reversed.

* Andre was to have been hanged October 1, but the matter was stayed when a British deputation arrived under flag of truce to make one last parley for their man’s life.

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