1723: Christopher Layer, for the Atterbury Plot

Add comment May 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Christopher Layer was hanged and quartered at Tyburn for the Jacobite Atterbury Plot

In the wake of the hegemonic Whigs’ political legitimacy crisis following the 1720 financial implosion of the South Sea bubble, supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty rekindled* hopes of resuming the English throne.

The “Atterbury Plot” — so named for its sponsor and most prominent adherent, the Tory Anglican bishop Francis Atterbury — proposed to orchestrate a coup that would seize the persons of the usurping Hanovers and key points in London and Westminster, coordinated with both an internal Catholic/Tory rising and a landing by forces loyal to James Stuart. (He’s known as “the Pretender” or as King James III, depending on where the speaker’s treasons lie.) So particularly were the Tory ambitions developed that lists of expected supporters for each of England’s counties had been drawn up, the framework of a hypothetical replacement state.

This plot was broken up by 1722 and has been ridiculed as fanciful by outcome-oriented observers, but the government at the time took a plan by disaffected elites to kidnap the royal family — a plot which had only been betrayed to them by one of the conspirators’ French contacts — very seriously indeed. Paul Kleber Monod characterizes the 1714-1723 period (which compasses more than just the Atterbury scheme) as “the most widespread and the most dangerous” of “three great waves of Jacobite activity.”

Responding vigorously, the newly ascendant Prime Minister** Robert Walpole used anti-Jacobite security measures to lay his firm hand on the helm of state. A Dutch envoy in 1723 wrote that one of its progenitors, Sir Henry Goring, “had formed a company out of the Waltham Blacks for the Pretender’s service” and that this perceived Jacobite association of skulking soot-faced poachers and potential guerrillas “led to the bringing of the Waltham Black Act into Parliament.”†

In a conspiracy of disaffected nobles, Layer might have been the least august participant — and perhaps this explains why he was the one to pay the highest price.

A successful Middle Temper barrister of strictly commoner stock, Layer’s successful practice earned him the confidence of Lord North and Grey, one of the other chief Jacobite conspirators.

Himself a ready adherent of same, Layer communicated directly with the Pretender, even traveling to Rome in 1721 to brief him personally on the plot. The volume of incriminating correspondence thereby produced, some of it in the hands of a mistress who would shop him, brought Layer his death sentence — albeit only after dramatically attempting an escape. His severed head would cast a rotted warning mounted atop Temple Bar.

Many died for the Stuart cause down the years but in the present affair only Layer would quaff the cup of martyrdom.

For others involved, who had been more circumspect about their paper trails and associates, treason would meet with less lethal revenge. Held in the Tower of London for two years, Atterbury himself proved elusive for a proper prosecution despite having corresponded directly with the Pretender with suggestive but discreet language (e.g., “the time is now come when, with a very little assistance from your friends abroad, your way to your friends at home is become safe and easy” in April 1721); instead, the Commons voted a bill of pains and penalties depriving him of his office and exiling him. Lord North and Grey followed him to the continent; like combinations of dispossession and disgrace befell all the other conspirators too.


Plaque to Christopher Layer in Aylsham, where he once practiced.

Poet Alexander Pope,‡ a Catholic, was close with Bishop Atterbury and wrote him an epitaph upon his passing.

For Dr. Francis Atterbury,
Bishop of Rochester,
Who died in Exile at Paris, in 1732.

[His only Daughter having expired in his arms, immediately after she arrived in France to see him.]

DIALOGUE.

SHE.

Yes, we have liv’d — one pang, and then we part!
May Heav’n, dear Father! now have all thy Heart.
Yet ah! how once we lov’d, remember still,
Till you are Dust like me.

HE.

               Dear Shade! I will:
Then mix this Dust with thine — O Spotless Ghost!
O more than Fortune, Friends, or Country lost!
Is there on earth one Care, one Wish beside?
Yes — Save my Country, Heavn’,
               — He said, and dy’d.

* Jacobites had only recently been defeated in a 1715 rising; they retained enough vim to try again in 1745.

** Walpole is often regarded retrospectively as the first Prime Minister, but this was not an official rank in his time: indeed, it was a defamation used against him and which Walpole rejected. (“I unequivocally deny that I am sole or Prime Minister and that to my influence and direction all the affairs of government must be attributed.”)

† Quote from Katherine West Scheil in Shapeskeare Survey 51.

‡ In other Atterbury-related celebrity litterateur brushes, Edward Gibbon’s Stuart-sympathizing grandfather was obliged by the Jacobite scandal to retire to his estate, “disqualified from all public trust.” The erudite historian would recall that “in the daily devotions of the family the name of the king for whom they prayed was prudently omitted.”

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1726: William “Vulcan” Gates, Black Act casualty

Add comment March 14th, 2013 Headsman

March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.

We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.

William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.

But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.

It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.

Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.

This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)

Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)

The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.

They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.

I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.

It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.

Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.

This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff’s assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.

At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’

‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.

After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying ‘D-me, you was afraid.’ -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]

After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”

The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.

While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.

More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”

Hmm.

Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.

Maybe.

The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.

As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)

* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.

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1723: The first London executions under the Waltham Black Act

3 comments December 4th, 2012 Headsman

“The law of England has displayed no unnecessary nicety, in apportioning the punishments of death …. Kill your father, or catch a rabbit in a warren — the penalty is the same! Destroy three kingdoms, or destroy a hop-bine — the penalty is the same!”

-Sir Thomas Buxton, commenting on the “Bloody Code” in 1821

E.P. Thompson’s classic Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act, has its titular legislation as “an expression of the ascendancy of a Whig oligarchy, which created new laws and bent old legal forms in order to legitimize its own property and status”

On this date in 1723, seven Waltham Blacks were hanged at Tyburn.

These poachers were the impressive first salvo of the Black Act, a new-minted statute early in the landmark government of Robert Walpole.

This law had been enacted to combat the rise of game poaching. As we’ve noted before, poaching was a longtime conflict zone in a Great Britain emerging as distinctly capitalist.

The Black Act would not merely sharpen those conflicts — it would intentionally define them, helping to enclose a labor marketplace enforced with hemp.* The Black Act added nearly 50 capital offenses to the rolls; it was a seminal statute for the 18th century’s notorious “Bloody Code”.

“The Black Act had a much wider sweep than a statute intended merely to protect the royal forests,” Frank McLynn notes. Poaching gangs “provided the occasion for draconian legislation; they were not its cause.”

These huntsmen were, early in the 18th century, increasingly bold taking game on forest preserves in defiance of hunting restrictions that made an absurd mishmash of feudal anachronisms and latter-day statues all of which contrived to limit the hunt only to a handful of wealthy landed aristocrats. It was, per Blackstone, “a bastard slip, known by the name of the game laws … wantoning in the highest vigour.”

This vigourous wantoning actually made for a multilateral class conflict. The rural poor, being displaced by enclosures, were barred from opting out of proletarianization for a life on the forage. (Nobody was allowed to sell game meat.) Sportsmen had the run of the land, but only the very richly landed could be “sportsmen”: small farmers were forbidden to take game even on their own property, whereas those whose huge estates licensed them to hunt were entitled to tramp through neighboring crops in pursuit of their quarry.

Poaching followed these un-neighborly injuries to traditional commons rights as vigorously as hounds follow hares. The state answered with the Black Act, and did not scruple to accuse known companies of “Blacks” of being Jacobite catspaws.

So named because it targeted poachers’ practice of “blackening” their faces, the 1722 law made it a hanging crime to go on the hunt in disguise, as well as a hanging crime to poach deer, rabbits, conies, or fish. Formerly, “deer-stealing” and the like had been mere misdemeanors.

The act also mandated death for a broad range of other rustic crimes such as damaging orchards, gardens, or cattle, with like penalties attached to conspiring to commit any of these crimes or rescuing anyone imprisoned for these crimes.**

The seven hanged this date were “Blacks” who happened to be captured shortly after the Black Act took effect in mid-1723 — from Windsor forest, and elsewhere. As a show of resolve in enforcing its grim new decrees, the crown had all these men shipped to London, far from their own communities where jurymen themselves aggrieved by game laws were known to acquit.

* Lest one doubt this red-tinged historiography of the Act, its apologists were no less clear on its objectives.

“No man, however successful in the profession, can expect to get as much profit by deer-stealing, as by following his lawful business,” intoned the Newgate Calendar about today’s hangings. “[Y]oung persons cannot learn a more important maxim than that in the scripture; ‘the hand of the diligent maketh rich.’

“In this place it may not be improper to make a single remark on the game laws. These are supposed to be, possibly not without reason, severe: it is contended that those animals which are wild by nature are equally the property of every man. Perhaps this is the truth: but persons in the lower ranks of life should remember, that when laws are once enacted, THEY MUST BE OBEYED. Safety lies in acquiescence with, not in opposition to, legal institutions.” (emphasis added)

** Just for good measure, it also prescribed the noose for just about every form of arson, and for anyone who “shall wilfully and maliciously shoot at any person in any dwelling-house, or other place” regardless of injury.

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1812: Daniel Dawson, for the integrity of sport

Add comment August 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1812, Daniel Dawson “suffered the awful sentence of the law, at the top of Cambridge Castle, amidst a surrounding assemblage of at least twelve thousand spectators, it being market-day.”

The crowd was an appropriate ornament to the condign punishment of the most famous horse-poisoner in English history — and perhaps the most severely-punished sports cheat in all of modernity.

A tout scrabbling his living about the storied Newmarket tracks of Cambridge, Dawson killed the favorite for a high-profile race (and three other horses besides) by poisoning their trough, intending only to hamper the beasts enough to make good a variety of bookies’ bets against the fair Pirouette.

Although acquitted for that crime, Dawson was promptly returned to the dock for a previous, and previously unsolved, horse-poisoning, and convicted under a “black act” statute to punish livestock-killing.

According to the inevitable trial pamphlet, freely available from Google Books,

DAWSON behaved with a sullen and impudent levity during the trial, and he frequently abused the witnesses whilst giving their testimony, loud enough to be heard throughout the court … with horrid imprecations, ill becoming his unhappy situation, and at other times he was nodding at and saluting with his hand different persons in court. The verdict of GUILTY had not the slightest effect on him, and his general conduct was altogether depraved. On his return to the castle, his conduct, at times, bordered on insanity, and he appears too illiterate to feel a consciousness of wrong, although he has confessed his guilt to the full extent.

(Katherine Watson adds that although Pirouette’s owner sought a reprieve for the poisoner, Dawson “spoke bitterly of the hypocrisy of the Jockey Club, few of the members of which were above cheating.”)

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