1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but when the opportunity to fight back arrived he joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1774: William Ferguson, redcoat

Add comment December 24th, 2014 Headsman

On the morning of December 24, 1774, the British 10th Regiment encamped on Boston Common shot a 28-year-old soldier named William Ferguson for desertion.

We do know a bit about Ferguson, but the most self-evidently notable thing about him is that he was in Boston in 1774 — his regiment of redcoats a most unwelcome interloper lately brought from Quebec where it had alit after being shipped overseas years before to fight in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War.

Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had ratcheted up the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”

The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)

Among other things, these measures:

  1. Closed the port of Boston;
  2. Exempted British officials in the colony from trials before colonial juries for any excesses they might commit against American insurgents, instead removing administration of justice safely to Britain; and,
  3. Put Massachusetts under a military governor: General Thomas Gage

Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”

But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.

General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.

Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.

Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.

In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.

The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)

Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

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1637: William Schooler and John Williams

Add comment September 28th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

On September 28, 1637, two men convicted on separate counts of murder in the Puritan colony north of Boston — in what is now Essex County — were executed on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Scholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.


Original (c) image from Murder And Mayhem in Essex County, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman, lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack river. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury, and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.

The woman’s name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.

In London, England, William Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel he fled to Holland to escape the law; then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636 he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.

Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack, to return to her master. Pascataquack — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement, about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe, then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.

Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no further. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.

The people of Newbury remained suspicious and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the “breadth of a small nail.” He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.

The following year the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered “mutinous and disorderly,” and the governor issued a warrant against him. When he was arrested, Schooler assumed it was about Mary Sholy and began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler;s behavior made the magistrates suspicious and, since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.

Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler’s character. In a Puritan court the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him.

Schooler denied that he murdered Mary Sholy but the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess but he would not. Schooler was contrite, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop denied Scholler a reprieve, saying: “but the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown.”


John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.

There are two versions of what happened next. In one story John Hoddy’s dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich where he was apprehended, after having been recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a “roaring” that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who on investigation found Hoddy’s naked body under a heap of stones.

Around the same time the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the Court of Assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams’s right to due process, and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The double hanging, on September 28, 1637, took place on Boston Common, where all executions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were held.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1659: The first two Boston Martyrs

5 comments October 27th, 2010 Headsman

October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day, dating to the execution this date in 1659 of Quakers Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson on Boston Commons. They were two of the four Boston Martyrs, Quakers whose necks were stretched in Massachusetts for failing to either keep quiet or stay out of town.

(Fellow Quaker Mary Dyer, perhaps the more famous martyr, was led out to execution with Stephenson and Robinson but reprieved at the last moment. Her time was still some months away.)

As Puritans had fled C-of-E persecution earlier in the 17th century, Quakers migrated to the New World with Cromwell‘s Puritan ascendancy.

And in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the old dissidence had become the new orthodoxy — as described by the (obviously partisan) Horatio Rogers. (Via)

In June, 1659, William Robinson, a merchant of London, and Marmaduke Stephenson, a countryman of the east pan of Yorkshire, “were moved by the Lord,” in Quaker phrase, to go from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to bear witness against the persecuting spirit existing there; and with them went Nicholas Davis of Plymouth Colony, and Patience Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, a girl of about eleven years of age … During their incarceration Mary Dyer was moved of the Lord to go from Rhode Island to visit the prisoners, and she too was arrested and imprisoned. On September 12, 1659, the Court banished the four adults from Massachusetts upon pain of death

… On October 8, within thirty days of her banishment, Mary Dyer with other Rhode Island Quakers went to Boston, …where she was again arrested and held for the action of the authorities. Five days later William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been travelling about spreading their doctrines through Massachusetts and Rhode Island since their release from prison, also went to Boston to look the bloody laws in the face, in the words of the Quaker chronicler; and they too were arrested and cast into prison. …

The issue was now clearly made between Quaker and Puritan. The Quaker defied the unjust Puritan laws, and dared martyrdom. Dare the Puritan authorities inflict it?

On October 19 the three prisoners were brought before Governor Endicott and the Assistants, and demand having been made of them — Why they came again into that jurisdiction after having been banished from it upon pain of death if they returned? — they severally declared that the cause of their coming was of the Lord and in obedience to him. The next day they were again brought before the magistrates, when the Governor called to the keeper of the prison to pull off their hats, which having been done, he addressed them substantially as follows: “We have made many laws and endeavored in several ways to keep you from among us, but neither whipping nor imprisonment, nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death, will keep you from among us. We desire not your death.” Notwithstanding which, he immediately added: “Hearken now to your sentence of death.” … When the Governor ceased speaking, however, Stephenson lifted up his voice in this wise: “Give ear, ye magistrates, and all who are guilty, for this the Lord hath said concerning you, who will perform this promise upon you, that the same day that you put his servants to death shall the day of your visitation pass over your heads, and you shall be cursed forevermore, the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it; therefore in love to you all take warning before it be too late, that so the curse might be removed; for assuredly if you put us to death, you will bring innocent blood upon your own heads, and swift destruction will come upon you.” …

Great influence was brought to bear to prevent the execution of the sentences. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut appeared before the Massachusetts authorities, urging that the condemned be not put to death. He said that he would beg it of them on his bare knees that they would not do it. … Governor Endicott, the Rev. John Wilson, and the whole pack of persecutors, however, seemed to thirst for blood; and it was determined that somebody must die.

The 27th of October, 1659, was fixed for the triple execution and elaborate preparations, for those days, were made for it. Popular excitement ran high, and the people resorted to the prison windows to hold communication with the condemned, so male prisoners were put in irons, and a force was detailed, in words of the order, “to watch with great care the towne, especially the prison.”…

The eventful day having arrived, Captain Oliver and his military guard attended to receive the prisoners. The marshal and the jailer brought them forth, the men from the jail, and Mary Dyer from the House of Correction. They parted from their friends at the prison full of joy, thanking the Lord that he accounted them worthy to suffer for his name and had kept them faithful to the end. The condemned came forth hand in hand, Mary Dyer between the other two, and when the marshal asked, “Whether she was not ashamed to walk hand in hand between two young men,” for her companions were much younger than she, she replied, “It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy.” The concourse of people was immense, the guard was strong and strict, and when the prisoners sought to speak the drums were caused to be beaten.

The method of execution was extremely simple in those days. A great elm upon Boston Common constituted the gallows. The halter having been adjusted round the prisoner’s neck, he was forced to ascend a ladder affording an approach to the limb to be used for the fatal purpose, to which limb the other end of the halter was attached. Then the ladder was pulled away, and the execution, though rude, was complete.

The prisoners took a tender leave of one another, and William Robinson, who was the first to suffer, said, as he was about to be turned off by the executioner, ‘I suffer for Christ, in whom I lived, and for whom I will die.” Marmaduke Stephenson came next, and, being on the ladder, he said to the people, “Be it known unto all this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience sake.”

Next came Mary Dyer’s turn. Expecting immediate death, she had been forced to wait at the foot of the fatal tree, with a rope about her neck, and witness the violent taking off of her friends. With their lifeless bodies hanging before her, she was made ready to be suspended beside them. Her arms and legs were bound, and her skirts secured about her feet; her face was covered with a handkerchief which the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who had been her pastor when she lived in Boston, had loaned the hangman. And there, made ready for death, with the halter round her neck, she stood upon the fatal ladder in calm serenity, expecting to die….

Just then an order for a reprieve, upon the petition of her son all unknown to her, arrives. The halter is loosed from her neck and she is unbound and told to come down the ladder. She neither answered nor moved. In the words of the Quaker chronicler, “she was waiting on the Lord to know his pleasure in so sudden a change, having given herself up to dye.” The people cried, “Pull her down.” So earnest were they that she tried to prevail upon them to wait a little whilst she might consider and know of the Lord what to do. The people were pulling her and the ladder down together, when they were stopped, and the marshal took her down in his arms, and she was carried back to prison. . .

It was a mere prearranged scheme, for before she set forth from the prison it had been determined that she was not to be executed, as shown by the reprieve itself, which reads as follows: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme; and it is further ordered, that she shall he carrjed to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke, till the rest be executed, and then to returne to the prison and remajne as aforesaid.

Mary Dyer once again returned from exile the following year, and was hanged in June 1660.

The hours were numbered, however, for New England Puritans in their most cartoonishly obnoxious form. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in the mother country, an edict forbidding the death penalty for Quakerism closed the doors to the Boston Martyrs club.

An Account of the Sufferings of Marmaduke Stephenson is available free on Google books.

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