1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

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1660: Mary Dyer, Quaker

Add comment June 1st, 2017 Headsman

Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston on this date in 1660 — the most famous of that city’s four “Quaker martyrs”.

Monument in Boston to Mary Dyer as “witness for religious freedom”. (cc) image by Andrea Schwartz.

By the time of her last ordeal, Dyer already had a quarter century-old reputation for religious misbehavior in the New World.

She’d ditched England with her husband in 1635, part of that decade’s great outmigration of Puritan dissidents — “A Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good Report, having a husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children,” according to an admiring account. Opinions varied: the colony’s governor found her “very censorious and troublesome, (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations).”

She brought with her a proclivity for the heretical: in Massachusetts, where the Puritan majority delivered the persecuting, Mary quickly fell foul of right-thinking folk by backing Anne Hutchinson in a theological controversy.* When Hutchinson was convicted by a church trial and banished, Mary Dyer cinematically walked hand-in-hand with her out of church. On top of everything else, she was known to have stillborne a deformed monstrosity (“a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together”) which was the kind of thing these people understood as deadly serious.

Mary and her husband went to exile with Hutchinson, and were among the first English settlers of Rhode Island, before returning to spend most of the 1650s back in England. There, Mary Dyer converted to one of the new entrants to the Commonwealth’s welter of novel sects, Quakerism.

This new faith’s emphasis on egalitarian personal religious experience ungoverned by ordained clergymen met an instant ban once Massachusetts caught wind of it, with a statute imposing mutilated tongues and trips to the pillory for expounding the outlaw doctrine. To these would be added the threat of the gallows for repeat offenders with the temerity to return from banishment … and Mary Dyer is only the most famous of four Quakers who actually suffered this penalty.


The Heart of N-England Rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation: Boston Rev. John Norton‘s 1659 anti-Quaker tract advocates their execution.

Dyer’s defiance of the law was straightforward, keeping with the bold tradition of martyrdom in witness. Jailed in Boston in 1657, her husband (who had not yet followed his wife’s conversion) managed to arrange her release; she returned in 1659 to visit other imprisoned Quakers and they were all banished for their trouble. Shortly after, she returned to Boston with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson: these were the first two Quakers put to death by the Puritans, but Mary Dyer was spared at the foot of the gallows and again expelled, finding temporary refuge in Rhode Island.

Edward Burrough’s A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God, which also catalogues the many brutal punishments inflicted on Quakers up until 1661, preserves an account of Mary’s final return to Boston in May 1660 and her immediate arrest for same: it was enough for her to acknowledge her identity to reinstate her former sentence.

“I came in Obedience to the Will of God the last General Court, desiring you to Repeal your unrighteous Lawes of Banishment upon pain of Death; and that same is my work now, and earnest Request,” she told the court that doomed her. “If ye refused to Repeal them, the Lord will send others of his Servants to Witness against them.”

The very next day, she was drummed — to prevent her preaching — on a mile-long walk a gallows on Boston Common. This time there was no reprieve waiting: only immortality.

* This controversy drove the short-term governor Henry Vane back to England, and martyrdom during the interregnum.

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1681: Maria, Jack, and William Cheney

Add comment September 22nd, 2016 Headsman

[1681 September] 22. There were 3 persons executed in Boston[.] An Englishman for a Rape. A negro man for burning a house at Northampton & a negro woman who burnt 2 houses at Roxbury July 12 — in one of wch a child was burnt to death.* The negro woman was burned to death — the 1st yt has suffered such a death in N.E.

-diary of Increase Mather

These three unfortunates were all three perpetrators of separate crimes, united by the logistical convenience of a joint execution date.

Maria’s claim on the horrible distinction of having been burned alive has been doubted by some,** but if Mather’s diary is correct it was undoubtedly done to mirror a crime so frightful to the masters: the firing of their own domiciles by their own domestics. The record in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s court records assuredly elides a fathomless depth of human passion.

Maria, a negro servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, in the county of Suffoike in New England, being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria Negro for not having the feare of God before hir eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of said Roxbury by taking a Coale from under a still and carried it into another roome and laide it on the floore neere the doore and presently went and crept into a hole at a back doore of thy Masters Lambs house and set it on fier also taking a live coale betweene two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed. As by uour Confession will appeare contrary to the peace of our Souevaigne Lord the King his croune.

The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor, yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.

Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul.

Three days later a fugitive slave named Jack — “Run away from Mr. Samuell Wolcot because he always beates him sometimes with 100 blows so that he hath told his master that he would sometime or other hang himself” — torched a house in Northampton, seemingly by accident while foraging by torchlight. There can’t have been a connection between these two slaves and their seemingly very different acts of resistance, but where once is coincidence, twice is a trend: Jack was convicted of arson and taken from Northampton to Boston at some inconvenience to the colony (the trip took 15 days and cost £2) for exhibition at the same pyre as Maria. Jack was certainly burned only posthumously.

As for the white gentleman, we will give the word to Increase Mather’s chip off the old block, Rev. Cotton Mather:

On September 22, 1681, one W.C. [William Cheney] was executed at Boston for a rape committed by him on a girl that liv’d with him; though he had then a wife with child by him, of a nineteenth or twentieth child.

This man had been “wicked overmuch.” His parents were godly persons; but he was a “child of Belial.” He began early to shake off his obedience unto them; and early had fornication laid unto his charge; after which, he fled unto a dissolute corner of the land, a place whereof it might be said, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place.”

He being a youth under the inspection of the church at Roxbury, they, to win him, invited him to return unto his friends, with such expressions of lenity towards him, that the reverend old man their pastor, in a sermon on the day when this man was executed, with tears bewail’d it.

After this, he liv’d very dissolutely in the town of Dorchester; where, in a fit of sickness, he vow’d that, if God would spare his life, he would live as a new man; but he horribly forgot his vows. The instances of his impiety grew so numerous and prodigious, that the wrath of God could bear no longer with him; he was ripen’d for the gallows.

After his condemnation, he vehemently protested his innocency of the fact for which he was condemn’d; but he confess’d “that God was righteous, thus to bring destruction upon him for secret adulteries.”

A reprieve would have been obtain’d for him, if his foolish and froward refusing to hear a sermon on the day appointed for his execution had not hardened the heart of the judge against him. He who had been a great scoffer at the ordinances of God, now exposed himself by being left unto such a sottish action!

He had horribly slighted all calls to repentance, and now, through some wretches over-perswading [sic] of him that he should not die according to sentence and order of the court, he hardened himself still in his unrepentant frame of mind.

When he came to the gallows, and saw death (and a picture of hell, too, in a negro then burnt to death at the stake, for burning her master’s house, with some that were in it,) before his face, never was a cry for “Time! time! a world for a little time! the inexpressible worth of time!” uttered with a most unutterable anguish.

He then declared, that “the greatest burden then lying upon his miserable soul, was his having lived so unprofitably under the preaching of the gospel.”

* It is flatly incorrect that Maria’s arson killed anyone. She was indicted for arson, and there is no reference to an associated murder in the trial record or non-Mather accounts.

** Notice that the court order does not direct that Maria be burned to death. This letter, as an example of a possible rival interpretation, indicates that “two were this day Executed heer and Exposed to the flames for those Crimes,” implying an equivalence between the punishments of the two slaves: hanged to death, then their bodies burned.

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1835: Francisco Ruiz, prostrated pirate

Add comment September 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lowell (Mass.) Patriot, September 18, 1835 — channeling, as the headling indicates, the Boston Morning Post. In addition to a wanton overuse of commas, this article’s casual alternation between the interchangeable spellings of “Marshal” and “Marshall” is [sic]. The piracy at issue was the subject of a previous Executed Today post.

Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Spanish piratical schooner Panda, who was distinguished above his brother buccaneers, by his pre-eminence in guilt, and violence, in the robbery of the Mexican, and yet had succeeded outliving them a few months, and prolonging a miserable existence in jail, by counterfeiting madness, in which, however, there was altogether too much method, was executed on Saturday morning in the jail yard.

At the trial of the Pirates, last December,* Ruiz was more positively identified than the others, on account of the prominent part which he took in the proceedings on board of the Mexican: he was pointed out as the man, who, with a drawn sword, drove the crew below, and as keeping guard over the hatchway while the vessel was pillaged of her specie; he was also singled out by the steward as the individual who beat him with a baton to compel him to disclose where he had secreted his private property.

Under his direction the sails were slashed, the combustables collected in the camboose, and the arrangements completed, for the setting fire to the sails and rigging of the plundered brig, which was happily arrested by her crew who escaped from below, by an aperture, which the pirates, in their haste to abandon her, fortunately omitted to secure.

Had the crew remained below an other [sic] minute, the brig would have been enveloped in one general conflagration, and not a man could have survived to recount the fate of his vessel and companions.

In the river Nazareth too, when the Panda, closely pressed by the British boats, was abandoned by her officers and crew, to Ruiz was assigned the dangerous duty of securing the ship’s papers, and then blowing her up, but his attempt to explode her magazine proved as unsuccessful as his infernal endeavor to wrap the Mexican in flames, in the middle of the ocean.

Since the expiration of Ruiz’s second respite, Mr. Marshall Sibley had procured the attendance, at the jail, of two experienced physicians, belonging to the U.S. Service, and who, being acquainted, with the Spanish language, were able to converse freely with him.

They had continued access to him, during the past month, and, as the result of their observations, reported to the Marshall in writing, that they had visited Ruiz several times for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was, or was not insane; and from their opportunities of observing him, they expressed their belief, that he was not insane.

This opinion being corroborated by other physicians, unacquainted with the Spanish language, but judging only from Ruiz’s conduct, induced the Marshal to forbear urging the Executive for a further respite; and for the first time, on Saturday morning, in an interview with the Spanish Interpreter and Priest, he was made sensible, that longer evasion of the sentence of the law was impracticable, and that he must surely die.

They informed him, that he had but half an hour to live, and retired, when he requested that he might not be disturbed during the brief space that remained to him, and turning his back to the open entrance of his cell, he unrolled some fragments of printed prayers, and commenced reading them to himself.

During this interval he neither spoke, nor heeded those who were watching him; but undoubtedly sufferred ]sic] extreme mental agony. At one minute he would [obscure] his chin on his bosom, and stand motionless; at another he would press his brow to the wall of his cell, or wave his body from side to side, as if wrung with unutterable anguish.

Suddenly, he would throw himself upon his knees on his mattress, and prostrate himself on his face as if in prayer; then throwing his prayers from him, he would clutch his rug in his fingers, and like a child try to double it up, or pick it to pieces.

After snatching up his rug and throwing it away again and again, he would suddenly resume his prayers, and erect posture, and stand mute, gazing through the aperture that admitted the light of day, for upwards of a minute.

This scene of imbecility and indecision — of horrible prostration of mind — eased in some degree when the Catholic clergyman re-entered his cell.

Precisely at 10 o’clock, the prisoner was removed from the prison, and, during his process to the scaffold, though the palor of death was spread over his countenance, and he trembled n every joint with fear, he chanted with a powerful voice an appropriate service from the Catholic ritual.

Several times he turned half round to survey the heavens, which at that moment were clear and bright above him, and when he ascended the platform, after concluding his last audible prayer, he took one long and steadfast gaze at the sun, and waited, in silence, his fate.

Unlike his comrades who had preceded him, he uttered no exclamations of innocence — his mind never appeared to revert to his crime.

His powers, mental and physical, had been suddenly crushed with the appalling reality that surrounded him; his whole soul was absorbed with one master feeling — the dread of a speedy and violent death.

Misunderstanding the lenity of the government, and the humanity of the officers, he had deluded himself with the hope of eluding his fate, and not having steeled his heart for the trying ordeal, it quailed in the presence of the dreadful paraphernalia of his punishment, as much as if he had been a stranger to deeds of blood, and never dealt death to his fellow man, as he ploughed the deep under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of “Rob, Kill, and Burn.”

He appeared entirely unconscious — dead, as it were — to all that was passing around him, when Deputy Marshal Bass coolly and securely adjusted the fatal cap, and, at the Marshall’s signal, which soon followed, adroitly cut the rope, which held down the latches of the platform.

The body dropoped heavily, and the harsh, abrupt shock must have instantly deprived him of all sensation, as there was no voluntary action of the hands afterwards. The body hung motionless half a minute, when a violent spasmodic action took place, occasioned simply by muscular contraction, but confined chiefly to the trunk of the body, which seemed to draw up the lower extremities into itself. The muscles of the heart continued to act nearly half an hour, but no pulsation was perceptible in a very few minutes after the fall.

Thus terminated his career of crime, in a foreign land, without one friend to recognize or cheer him, or a single being to regret his death — dying in very truth “unwept, unhonored.”

The skull of Delgrado, the suicide, who held the knife to Capt. Butman’s throat, was thought by the phrenologists to favor their supposed science; but they will find in the head of Ruiz a still more extraordinary development of the destructive, and other animal propensities, if we were not deceived in the alleged localities of these organs.

The execution took place in one of the most secluded situations in the City — not a hundred persons could witness it from within the yard; and very few, excepting professional persons, having business there, and the officers, were admitted inside.

Great credit is due to the U.S. Marshall for the privacy with which he caused the execution to be performed, and for not interrupting, by exhibiting a public, and exciting through barbarous spectacle, the business of the community.

* The long interval which has elapsed since the conviction of Capt. Gilbert and his crew, has afforded the most ample time to bring to light facts tending to establish their innocence, if any had been in existence; and the non-production of such facts, under the circumstances, must remove every possible shadow of a doubt of their guilt.

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1784: Cassumo Garcelli, a Tuscan sailor on Boston Common

Add comment January 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1784, for a murder in a bar brawl he had committed with his hard-drinking cronies, Tuscan mariner Cassumo Garcelli was hanged on Boston Common.

To judge by the bog-standard broadsheet purporting to report the condemned man’s gallows’ shade contrition for his youthful vice and wicked examples, piratical Catholic seamen appear to have understood the spectacle of their public execution in a friendless foreign land in a manner quite suspiciously similar to the understanding likely to be held by a New England printer.

In the transcription that follows, I have made a few interpolations, and one outright elision, owing to sections of text obscured by printing faults on the preserved version of this document.


Click on the image to see the full original document.

Who was this Day (Thursday, January 15, 1784) executed, for the willful, cruel and inhuman murder of Mr. John Johnson on the evening of the sixth November, 1783.

I, Cassumo Garcelli, was born at Leghorn, in Italy, on the Fifth Day of March, 1760. My Parents, who are, as I have since been informed, both dead, were not classed among the lower Order of People, endeavoured to check the natural Viciousness of my Disposition, by repeated Corrections and Admonitions, but to no Effect, for the Proneness of my Temper to Vice, I cherished by keeping company with gambling, lewd, ill-moral’d Fellows, and committing Foibles, which the Consideration of being Young screen’d from publick Punishment. I have three Sisters, who I believe are still living, and will, in all Probability, here of the untimely [death of their] Brother.

In early Life […] to try my fortune … notwithstanding the Intreaties of my best Friends, I entered on board a Vessel, in the Capacity of Cabin-Boy. After making a Number of Voyages, a particular Account of which would give but trifling Satisfaction to any Person, I quitted the Profession for several Years, but again enter’d on a Voyage to Porto-Rico, where I committed the horrid Crime of Murder, by stabbing a Man, in an affray, with my poinard: I escaped the vigilance of my persuers, and got on board the vessel. After a short tarry there, we set sail for Philadelphia. During the Time I was on board this Vessel, I contracted an Intimacy with one Prami, whose wicked advice and Example was in a great Measure the Cause of my perpetrating a Number [sic], for [one of?] which I am this Day to make the attonement of my Life, to satisfy the demands of Justice.

Upon our arrival near Philadelphia, Prami with myself concerted a Platt to murder the Captain and crew, and make off with the vessel: We so far succeeded as that Prami murder’d the Captain, and I one of the sailors, but the crew mustering obliged us to decamp: We entered on board a schooner, and in a few days sailed for this place.

The Crime for which I am now to Suffer, was committed in the following manner: On the Evening of the 6th of November, being in Company with two of my Comrads [sic], we came from the North End, and on passing by Mr. Vose’s House, we heard some People Dancing, upon which (knowing it to be a Public House) we entered, and called for some Liquor, which was brought to us, after paying for it.

Vami, the stout man, with a white Jacket, who has made his Escape, enter’d the Room; my other Companion and I follow’d on, but was told to go out, which we did; on going into the Street, Prami laid hold on a young Woman, which occasion’d her to cry “Murder,” upon which Johnson, with others ran to her Assistance, an Affray ensued, when Johnson approaching us received three Stabs from me, and two from Prami: We endeavoured to make our escape, which Prami effected: I was taken, confined, brought to trial, and after a very fair trial was convicted of the crime, sentenced, and am this day to suffer. Humbly craving the Benediction of ALL, I must confess [and am] willing to die.

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1698: Sarah, for her whoredoms

1 comment November 17th, 2015 Cotton Mather

(As this blog has often enough bestowed its disdain on Puritan holy roller Cotton Mather, one of the never-apologetic architects of the Salem witch trials, we thought it only fair to permit the man to vindicate himself in his own words. What follows his Mather’s own accounting of the sermon he thundered in Boston at an unreceptive infanticide known only as Sarah. The text — presented with only some slight tidying and added line breaks — derives from Mather’s own histories, here and here. -ed.)

On November 17, 1698. There was executed in Boston, a miserable Young Woman, whose Extraordinary circumstances rung throughout all New England.

On this Day of her Execution, was Preached the Sermon: Because the last passage of that Sermon, gave a summary Narrative, of what it is fit the publick should know concerning that Criminal, I have Transferr’d them, into this place. The Sermon Concluded in these words.

Be astonished, O Congregation of God; Stand astonished, at the Horrible Spectacle, that is now before You: This House, and perhaps this Land, never had in it a more Astonishing Spectacle.

Behold, a Young Woman, but an Old Sinner, going this Day to Dy before her time, for being Wicked over much! Behold, One just Nineteen Years Old, and yet found Ripe for the Vengeance of a Capital Execution. Ah, Miserable Soul, With what a swift progress of Sin and Folly, hast thou made Hast unto the Congregation of the Dead!

Behold a Person, whose Unchast Conversation appear’d by one Base Born Child many months ago! God then gave her a Space to Repent, and she repented not: She repeated her Whoredomes, and by an Infatuation from God upon her, She so managed the matter of her next Base Born, that she is found Guilty of its Murder: Thus the God, whose Eyes are like a Flame of Fire, is now casting her Page into a Bed of Burning Tribulation: And, ah, Lord, Where wilt thou cast those that have committed Adultery with her, Except they Repent! Since her Imprisonment, She hath Declared, That she believes, God hath left her unto this Undoing Wickedness, partly for her staying so profanely at Home sometimes on Lords-Dayes, when she should have been Hearing the Word of Chirst, and much more for her not minding that Word, when she heard it.

And she has Confessed, That she was much given to Rash Wishes, in her Mad Passions, particularly using often that ill Form of speaking, “He be Hang’d,” if a thing be not thus or so, and, “I’ll be Hanged,” if I do not this or that; which Evil now, to see it, coming upon her, it amazes her! But the chief Sin, of which this Chief of Sinners, now cries out, is, Her Undutiful Carriage towards her Parents. Her Language and her Carriage towards her Parents, was indeed such that they hardly Durst speak to her; but when they Durst, they often told her, It would come to This. They indeed, with Bleeding Hearts, have now Forgiven thy Rebellions; Ah, Sarah, mayst thou Cry unto the God of Heaven to Forgive Thee! But under all the doleful circumstances of her Imprisonment, and her Impiety, she has been given over, to be a prodigy of still more Impenitent Impiety.

A Little before her Condemnation, she Renewed the Crimes of her Unchastity: she gave her self up to the Filthy Debauches, of a Villain, that was her Fellow-Prisoner; and after her Condemnation, her Falshoods, and her Furies have been such, as to proclaim, That under Condemnation she has not Feared God. Was there ever seen such an Heighth of Wickedness? God seems to have Hanged her up in Chains, for all the Young People in the Countrey, to see, what prodigies of Sin and Wrath it may render them, if once they Sell themselves thereunto. Behold, O Young People, what it is to Vex the Holy Spirit of God, by Rebelling against Him. This, This ’tis to be Given over of God! And yet after all this Hard-hearted Wickedness, is it not possible, for the Grace of Heaven to be Triumphantly Victorious, in Converting and Pardoning so Unparallel’d a Criminal? Be astonished, Miserable Sarah, and Let it now break that Stony heart of thine, to Hear it; It is possible! It is possible! But, O thou Almighty Spirit of Grace, do thou graciously Touch, and Melt this Obstinate Soul, and once at last, mould her Heart into the Form of thy Glorious Gospel. The Glorious Gospel of God, now utters unto thee, Undone Sarah, that Invitation, Tho’ thou hast horribly gone a Whoring, yet Return unto me, saith the Lord, and I will not cause my Anger to fall upon thee. The Lessons of this Gospel have been both privately and publickly set before thee, with a vast variety of Inculcation. If all the Extraordinary pains that have been taken for the softening of thy Stony Heart, be Lost, God will dispense the more terrible Rebukes unto thee, when He anon breaks thee between the Milstones of His Wrath.

Oh, Give now a great Attention, to some of the Last Words, that can be spoken to thee, before thy passing into an astonishing Eternity.

The Blessed Lord JESUS CHRIST hath been made a Curse for Us; there has been a most Acceptable Offering and Sacrifice, presented by the Lord Jesus Christ unto God, for all His Chosen: there is a Fountain set open for Sin and for Uncleanness: and thou, O Bloody Sinner, art Invited unto that Open Fountain. Such is the Infinite Grace of God, that thou mayst come as freely to the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the Forgiveness of thy Sins, as they that have never Sinn’d with a Thousandth part of so much Aggravation; Come, and Welcome, says the Lord, who Receiveth Sinners. If God Enable thee Now, to Lay Hold on the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, tho’ thy Faults are Infinite, thou wilt yet before Sun-set Stand without Fault before the Throne of God. Thy Soul is just sinking down, into the Fiery Ocean of the Wrath of God, but the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, is cast forth unto thee, once more, for thee, to Lay Hold upon.

Oh! Lay Hold upon it, and Live! If God help thee, to do so, Then, as it was said, “The Mary whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her,” So it shall be said, “The Sarah, whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her!” Then, as it was said, Rahab the Harlot perished not, so it shall be said, Sarah the Harlot, perished not! Tho’ the Blood of thy murdered Infant, with all thy other Bloody Crimes, horribly Cry to God against thee, yet a louder and better Cry from the Blood of thy Saviour, shall drown that formidable Cry. Yea, then, There will be Joy in Heaven this Afternoon among the Angels of God; the Angels of Heaven will stand amazed, and say, “O the Infinite Grace, that can bring such a Sinner unto Glory!”

But if ever the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, be applied unto thy Heart, it will immediately Dissolve that Heart of thine; it will cause thee to Mourn for every Sin, to Turn from every Sin, to give thy self entirely unto God. It will be impossible for thee, to Go on in any Known Sin, or to Dy with a Ly in thy mouth: No, thou wilt rather Dy than commit any Known Sin in the World. If this Disposition, be not produced in thee, before Three or Four short Hours more are Expired, thy Immortal Spirit, will anon pass into Eternal Torment: thou wilt before To morrow morning be a Companion of the Devils and the Damned; the Everlasting Chains of Darkness will hold thee, for the Worm that never dies, and the Fire that never shall be Quenched: thou shalt fall into the Hands of the Living God, and become as a glowing Iron, possessed by his Burning Vengeance, throughout Eternal Ages; the God that made thee, will not have mercy on thee, and He that formed thee will show thee no Favour. But for his Mercy, and Favour, while there is yet hope, we will yet Cry unto Him.

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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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1715: Margaret Gaulacher, Cotton Mather ignorer

1 comment June 9th, 2014 Headsman

American poet Jill McDonough wrote this moving sonnet to the Irish servant Margaret Gaulacher (sometimes also called Margaret Callahan), who was hanged on this date in 1715 for the infanticide of her (ill-)concealed newborn.

June 4, 1715: Margaret Gaulacher
Boston, Massachusetts

The news that week includes a lyonefs
displayed, attacking Fowls and Catts. They watched
her feeding time, remarked on her mercilefs
cruelty. Meanwhile, Cotton Mather preached
against Hard-hearted Sinners, and Hardnefs of Heart.
He helped with her confession, which reflects
on attempts to destroy her unborn child, a part
of her Wicked crime, completed through Neglect.
Now hers is a Stony Heart, of Flint. Ah! Poor
Margaret, behold: the congregation calls
on your wondrous Industry, Agony, your death four
days off. Pray for a Clean, and a Soft Heart; don’t fall
from this fresh gallows to the Mouths of Dragons,
unconcerned, adamant, so little broken.

I believe the poet here may be getting “June 4″ here from the Espy file of historical U.S. executions. Unfortunately that date is not correct; it’s unequivocal in primary colonial news accounts that this hanging occurred on Thursday, June 9.*

But McDonough is spot on about the Cotton Mather vs. Hard-hearted Sinners theme of the execution. That vigorous gallows evangelist favored — he surely thought it was “favored” — the poor condemned wretch with every exertion private and public of his considerable rhetorical powers to save her soul ere she swung.

Gaulacher never quite submitted in the way Mather thought a proper condemned woman ought.

The illiterate woman signed off on an obviously Mather-written statement admitting the justice of her sentence and warning (as was standard scaffold fare) any hearers against her iniquities: “Swearing and Cursing … Profanations of His Holy Sabbaths … Rebellion against my Parents … the Sins of Unchastity.” But this pro forma gesture was the end of it; she obdurately refused to make a public show of Mather-friendly contrition and continued to show in private an unbecoming bitterness at her execution — in Mather’s eyes, clear evidence that she had not made a proper peace with her maker.

We have no access to the hanged woman’s inner life save via an interlocutor who obviously wasn’t on her same wavelength. Maybe she loved her unchaste carnal life too much to part with it in resignation. Likely, though she kept her Catholicism hidden from Mather, she didn’t feel right at home with the stridently Protestant settlement’s rituals and its congregationalist conversion milieu. Like them or not, however, she had to endure them: within a month of Margaret Gaulacher’s hanging, a book of two lengthy Cotton Mather sermons delivered to her in the presence of the entire congregation of Boston’s Second Church was being advertised for sale.

The text below consists of extracts from those two sermons — the parts where Rev. Mather gets personal and directly addresses his charge — surmounted by the explanatory introduction. Mather’s deep conviction that Gaulacher’s soul is in dreadful peril leaps from the page; so too does the silent prisoner’s rejection. The full publication can be perused in pdf form.


The OCCASION.

What gave Occasion to the Sermons here Exhibited, was an Amazing Instance of what the poor Chidlren of Men abandoned unto Ignorance and Wickedness may be left unto! A prodigious Instance of that Hardness of Heart, which especially the Sins of Unchastity, accompanied with Delays of Repentance, do lead unto.

Margaret Gaulacher, an Irish Woman, arrived the last Winter from Cork in Ireland, a Servant, that soon found a Place in a Family where she would not have wanted Opportunities and Encouragements for the Service of GOD.

She had been by her part in a Theft brought into Trouble in Ireland; and after her Transportation hither, it was not long before she was found in Thievish Practices.

Ere she had been long here, it was begun to be suspected, that she was with Child, by a Fornication; But she so Obstinately all along denied it, that at last she must feel the Effects of her Obstinacy.

She was delivered of her Illegitimate, when she was all alone; and she hid the Killed Infant out of the way; which was within a little while discovered.

Of her Behaviour in the Time of her Imprisonment, and of the Means used for her Good, there is an Account given in our Sermons.

The Woman was of a very Violent Spirit; and the Transports and Furies thereof, sometimes were with such Violence, as carried in them, one would have thought, an uncommon Degree of Satanic Energie.

By’nd by, she would bewail her Passions, and promise to indulge herself no more in such Passionate Outrages. One who owns himself to be a Roman-Catholick, affirms to me, that she privately Declared herself unto him, to be in her Heart, of his Religion; But she never would own any thing of that unto the Ministers who visited her with the Means of her Salvation.

A Gracious and Worthy Servant of God, Mr. Thomas Craighead, (a Faithful and Painful Minister of the Gospel, who came from Ireland, much about the same time that she did) having Instructed her, and used many Charitable Endeavours for her Good, was desired by her to be near her at her Execution; who accordingly Pray’d with her there, and continued his Instructions unto the Last.

She said little, but reff’d herself to the Paper which had been read Publickly in the Congregation just before.

And yet she Frowardly let fall one Word, which did not seem very consistent with it; For which fretful Strain of Impatience, being rebuked, she added, Then the Lord be Merciful unto me! and spoke no more.

All that remains for us to do, is to leave her in the Hands of a Sovereign GOD, whose Judgment, and not ours, has the Disposal of her; and make the best Improvement we can of such a Tragical Spectacle; for which the ensuing Sermons are some Essays.

But, I ought now if I can, to Refresh my Readers, with something that shall be more Agreeable, more Comfortable; have less to Trouble them; something that may be the Reverse of so shocking a Spectacle, as has here given Troublesome Idea’s unto them.

Of this we have a very Tragical Instance now before our Eyes. One who by hardening her Heart has brought herself into wonderful Mischief; and continues to harden her Heart, after the wondrous Mischief has come upon her like a Whirlwind from the Lord.

Ah, poor Creature; Thou hast been Guilty of many Sins, and Heinous ones. But, Oh! Don’t add this to all the rest, this Comprehensive one, this Atrocious one; To harden thy Heart after all, and so to bind all fast upon thy Soul forever.

God has done a dreadful Thing upon thee, in leaving thee to a Crime for which thou art now as one Wicked overmuch, to Dye before thy Time, and e’re twenty five Years have rolled over thee, the Sword of Justice with an untimely Stroak must cut thee off. But it will be a much more dreadful Thing, if thou art left after all unto an hard Heart, that will not Repent of thy Abominations, and of thy Bloodguiltiness.

f thou hadst not hardened thy own Heart exceedingly, Oh! what Things would be seen upon thee; other Things than are yet seen upon thee! Verily, A soft Heart would Mourn and Weep and Bleed, for a Life sweell’d away in Sin against the Glorious GOD. A soft Heart would soon Drown thee in Tears, from the View of the doleful Things thy Sin has brought upon thee. A soft Heart would make thee own the Justice of God and Man in what is now done unto thee; and would Silence thy Froward and Fretful and Furious Gnashing upon such as thou has no Cause to treat with so much transported Fury.

It breaks the Hearts of the Good People in the Place, to see thy Deplorable State: They are concerned, when they see thy Lamentable State: But above all, to see, that thou art thyself no more concerned for it; no more affected with it; so little Broken in Heart. And shall not thy own Heart at length be Broken, when thy own State comes into thy Consideration?

One once could say, God makes my Heart Soft, and the Almighty Troubles me. And will it not make thy Heart Soft, when thou thinkest on the amazing Trouble, which thou shalt feel from the Wrath of the Almighty GOD, if thou Dye in thy Sins? Verily, All the Sorrows thou seest here, are but the Beginning of Sorrows, if thou art not by a broken Heart prepared for the Salvation of God.

But then, What an Heart-breaking Thought is this? Margaret, There is yet Mercy for thee, if thou wilt not by an hard Heart refuse the Mercy; The Mercy, thro’ which Rahab the Harlot perished not; The Mercy, thro’ which Mary Magdalene had her many Sins forgiven her; This Mercy is ready to do Wonders for thee. A Merciful Saviour Invites thee; O come unto me, and I will do Wonders for thee.

Come and fall down before Him, and beg the Blessings of a soft Heart at His Gracious Hands. I know not of any Advice that can be so Proper, or so Needful for thee, as this; No Prayer of so much Importance to be made by thee as this.

The Ignorance which lays Chains of Darkness upon thee, is a sore Encumbrance on thy Essays for turning to God. Yet thou art not so Ignorant, but thou canst make this Petition to thy SAVIOUR. Lord, soften this hard Heart of mine! And, Lord, Bestow a New, and a Clean, and a Soft Heart upon me! And, God be Merciful to me a sinner; yea, an Hard-hearted Sinner!

Now, May the Gracious Lord accordingly look down upon thee.

of those who are sure of having the Arrest of Death presently served upon them, there is none that has a more affecting Assurance of it, than a poor Daughter of Death, who is this Afternoon to have her Soul Required of her. Ah! poor Creature! Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art under a Condemnation, to a Tragical Death which is to be this Afternoon executed on thee; and within three or four Hours, thy Soul will be Required of thee; within three or four Hours thy Soul must make its Appearance before a Terrible GOD! Oh! What, what will be the Condition of that Perishing Soul, if no Fear of God be found in it, when it Appears before him? —

There is indeed a vast Abundance even to a Profusion, of Instructions, bestow’d more Privately on such Malefactors as Dye among us: No Place upon Earth does equal this Place for that Exercise of Charity. And this poor Creature has had a very particular Share thereof: Not only have the Ministers of the Gospel done their Part, in Visiting of her, but also many Private Christians have done theirs, in a most Exemplary manner. As of old in Jersualem it was the Usage of the Ladies, to Prepare for the Dying Malefactors, that Potion which was called, The Wine of the Condemned, so the Young Gentlewomen here in their Turns, have Charitably gone to the Prison every Day for diverse Weeks together, and because of her not being able to Read, have spent the Afternoons in Reading Portions of the Scriptures, and other Books of Piety, to this Condemned Woman, and giving their Excellent Councils unto her. Nevertheless, we chuse in a more Publick way also to direct a few Words of our Sermons, unto such Persons, when we have them among our Hearers; Because, the Preaching of the Gospel, is the Grand Ordinance of our Saviour, for the Conversion of a Sinner from the Error of his way; an we would wait upon our Glorious LORD, in that way which he has Ordained, hoping, still hoping, to see a Soul saved from Death!

Wherefore once more, O miserable Woman, entering into an Eternity to be trembled at; Once more, thou shalt hear the Joyful Sound of the Gospel, inviting thee to the Fear of God, and the Faith of thy only Saviour. And if there be not in this Last Essay, a more saving Impression from the Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God made upon thee, than thou hast yet felt from any former ones, — Oh! the dreadful, dreadful Consequences! What will become of thee! — Can thy Hands be Strong, or can thy Heart endure, in the View of what a Terrible GOD will order for thee? — Behold, Ah! poor Margaret, Behold a mighty Congregation of People, with Hearts Bleeding for thee, and Wishing and Praying and Longing to see the fear of God making some Discoveries in thee. And shall thy Heart still remain unaffected with thy own Condition; discovering still a total Estrangement from the fear of God! No Tears are enough, Tears of Blood were not enough, to be employ’d on so prodigious a Spectacle!

I am sorry, I am sorry, that I find myself obliged so much to speak it. Even since thou hast been under Condemnation, thou hast not feared God. Not many Hours are passed, since I saw in thee, so much Rage, and so Unrighteously harboured, and so Indecently Vomited, against some Vertuous Children of God, that it was too Evident, this fear of God had not yet begun to soften thee.

But if the fear of God enter not into thy Soul, before thy Soul be driven out of thy Body, which will be now, — alas, before many Minutes more be expired, thy Desolate, Forsaken, Miserable Soul, can have no part in the Kingdom of God. My Soul cannot be safe, if I forbear to tell thee so!

Ah, poor Creature, Art thou wiling to Dye unreconciled unto the God, whom thou hast Affronted with infinite Provocations? To Dye, and all into the Mouths of Dragons, who have so long poisoned thee, and enslaved thee? To Dye and be cast into the Eternal Burnings, from whence the Smoak of the Torment will ascend forever and ever? What? Shall all the Means of Good, which in a Religious Place have been used for thee, with hopes that they might find out one of the Elect of God, serve only to aggravate thy Eternal Condemnation at the last? Oh! Dreadful Consideration!

But, Oh! Be Astonished at it! There is yet a Door of Hope set open for thee; It will for one Hour it may be, stand open yet! Oh! Be full of Astonishment at such an Heart-melting Declaration, as is now to be made unto thee. A Compassionate SAVIOUR, is yet willing, to Cleanse thy Soul with His Blood, from the Sins, which by casting off the fear of God thou hast fallen into; yet willing to create in thee a Clean Heart that shall be filled with the fear of God, if he be sought unto; yet calling to thee, O look unto me and be Saved! And yet affording unto thee that Encouragement, in Joh. VI. 37. He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.

And, Oh! What wilt thou now do under these Astonishing Invitations? Wilt thou not improve these few Minutes with a most wondrous Industry and Agony? Do so, and be no longer such an Hard-hearted Prodigy! Fall down before thy SAVIOUR, and cry out; O my Saviour, Take pitty on my Soul, and now at the Last, let Sovereign Grace break forth, with a good Work of thy fear in my Soul! Cry out, O my Saviour, Let my Sin be all pardoned, and let all Sin be as Abominable unto me, as it is unto all that fear thy Name! Let thy Outcries pierce the very Heavens.

But, be it known unto thee, If the fear of God be in thee, it will be a thing more Bitter than Death unto thee, that thou hast Sinned against His Glorious Majesty; Thy Malice against every Neighbour will be extinguished; Thou wilt submit with Patience, to the Punishment of thy Iniquity; And thou wilt be an Holy, Humble, Thankful Soul, and quite another Creature! — God of His Infinite Mercy make thee so!

* n.b. — a Julian calendar date, as were all British colonies until England herself transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

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1849: Washington Goode

Add comment May 25th, 2014 Headsman

America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.

In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”

In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.

In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:

A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.

Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.

In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†

That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with
Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.

While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.

In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.

Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.

However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡

Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to save Goode from the gallows.

But the Commonwealth was not moved.

Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.

The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.

Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.

But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.

* The anti-death penalty and anti-slavery causes had a good deal of overlapping personnel, too: slavery abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Lydia Child, and William Lloyd Garrison were prominent supporters of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. (See The Death Penalty: An American History.)

** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.

† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.

‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquit.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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