1774: John Malcom, tarred and feathered

Add comment January 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1774,* in the British official John Malco(l)m was tarred and feathered and mock-executed by enraged Bostonians during the tense run-up to the American Revolution.

Malcom’s militant Loyalism put him sharply at odds with his city’s’s rising Patriot ultras — the sorts of people who, just a month before, had provocatively dumped British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Malcom himself hadn’t been proximate to that event but as a customs official he’d made himself obnoxious on the docks before. In October of 1773, he seized a ship in Falmouth,** threatening “to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.” The sailors responded by sheathing John Malcom in a coat of tar and feathers and marching him through the streets.

This vigilante justice was meant to come up short of serious physical injury, and it did. But it was a crippling public disgrace, far beyond the streets of Falmouth — an ironic situation since Malcom’s own late brother Daniel was a celebrated Patriot bootlegger.† Back in Boston, Malcom found himself heckled in the streets about the incident to such an extent that he complained to the governor. (The governor told him to suck it up.) And it bubbled right to the surface in the incident that brings today’s post, too.

On January 25 of 1774, one of the Patriot participants in the aforementioned Boston Tea Party named George Robert Twelves Hewes‡ happened across the hated crown agent — “standing over a small boy who was pushing a little sled before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very heavy ferril on it.” (That’s according to the next week’s (Jan. 31, 1774) Boston Gazette, as are the subsequent quotes in this post.) Apparently the kid had crashed his conveyance into Malcom while out frolicking in the deep winter’s snow.

Hewes interceded for the child, and Malcom rounded on him: “you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business!” Flexing his class rank, Malcom further scolded the “vagabond” that he ought not address a gentleman in public. Hewes dissented and after an exchange of barbs cut Malcom to the quick with the retort, “be that as it will, I never was tarred or feathered.” This own brought Malcom’s heavy cane crashing into Hewes’s head, crumpling the Good Samaritan to the cobblestones.

Angry bystanders to the incident trailed Malcom home, and heaven only knows what hard words were traded on the way. He should have been worried and maybe he was, but his blood was up from Hewes’s insult: Malcom stood on the threshold and verbally sparred with his angry neighbors — “you say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner.” The man’s Falmouth tarring, you see, had been leniently poured over his clothes, which might have been hell on his dry cleaning bills but also minimized the injury that hot tar could do to naked skin. Now he was daring a rougher treatment at the hands of Bostonians who had certainly proven up to that challenge in the past.

Calmer heads knew this situation could spiral out of control and judiciously steered the irate official into his house. But Malcom was not to be stilled; when his wife opened a sash to implore the crowd to disperse, her husband exploited the opening to thrust a sword into the breast of a bystander. Luckily for both parties the blade struck bone, causing only a glancing flesh wound.

Somehow the irascible coot restrained himself in the house long enough for this disturbance to subside, while Hewes shook off his concussion well enough to swear out a warrant.

But by evening, word of this politically charged provocation had circulated in Boston, along with all Malcom’s bluster — “among other things, that he would split down the yankees by dozens, and receive 20l. sterling a head for every one he destroyed.” A crowd started assembling again at Mr. Malcom’s door, now dangerously intent on its purpose.

they got ladders and beating in an upper window, entered the house and took him without loss of blood, and dragging him out put him on a sled, and amidst the huzzas of thousand[s], brought him into King street. Several Gentlemen endeavoured to divert the populace from their intention, alledging that he was open to the laws of the land which would undoubtedly award a reasonable satisfaction to the parties he had abused; they answered he had been an old, impudent and mischievous offender — he had joined in the murders at North Carolina — he had seized vessels on account of sailors having a bottle or two of gin on board — he had in office, and otherwise, behaved in the most capricious, insulting and daringly abusive manner — and on every occasion discovered the most rooted enmity to this country, and the defenders of its rights — that in case they let him go they might expect a like satisfaction as they had received in the cafes of Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government. With these and such-like arguments, together with a gentle crouding of persons not of their way of thinking out of the ring, they proceeded to elevate Mr. Malcom from his sled into the cart, and stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket, and hurried him away to liberty-tree, where they proposed to him to renounce his present commission, and swear that he would never hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; but this he obstinately refusing, they then carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck, and threw the other end over the beam as if they intended to hang him: But this manoeuvre he set at defiance. They then basted him for some time with rope’s end, and threatened to cut his ears off, and on this he complied, and they the brought him home.

See, reader, the effects of a government in which the people have no confidence!


“Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering” (color version of same). This print and the next one make reference to a dubious report in London papers that Malcom was made to guzzle tea to the point of bursting for “your whole Fraternity at the Custom house would drench us with this Poison, and we are to have our Throats cut if it will not stay upon our Stomachs.”


“A new method of macarony making, as practiced in Boston”. (A different print with a nearly identical title shows an expanded view of a gallows here.) The number 45 seen on the hat above was code for Liberty at this period, due to the daring anti-monarchist sentiment in issue no. 45 of radical agitator John Wilkes‘s The North Briton.


A French engraving of the event, from 1784.

* There are a few other dates besides Tuesday, January 25 to be found out there, but newspaper reports from the time clearly place it on that day. Malcom himself later circulated a strange bulletin to Boston churches confirming the date with the words “John Malcom returns thanks to Almighty God, that again he is able to wait on him again in the public worship, after the cruel and barbarous usage of a cruel and barbarous savage mob in Boston, on the 25th evening of January last past confined him to house, bed and room.”

** The town of Falmouth is now Portland, Maine. Its most famous revolutionary war incident was put it to the torch by the British in 1775.

Daniel Malco(l)m’s grave is pocked by musket balls fired at the marker for good luck by redcoats.

‡ Hewes lived to the ripe old age of 98. Enjoy a public domain 1830s biography drawn from personal conversation with the old veteran here … including Hewes’s recollection of the tarring and feathering, which in his telling was clearly extremely traumatic to his antagonist.

The people, however, soon broke open the door, and took Malcom into their custody. They then took him to the place where the massacre was committed, and their flogged him with thirty-nine stripes. After which, they besmeared him thoroughly with tar and feathers; they then whipped him through the town, till they arrived at the gallows, on the neck, where they gave him thirty-nine stripes more, and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember that he had come within one of being hanged. They then took him back to the house from whence they had taken him, and discharged him from their custody.

The severity of the flogging they had given him, together with the cold coat of tar with which they had invested him, had such a benumbing effect upon his health, that it required considerable effort to restore his usual circulation. During the process of his chastisement, the deleterious effect of the frost, it being a cold season, generated a morbid affection upon the prominent parts of his face, especially upon his chin, which caused a separation and peeling off of some fragments of loose skin and flesh, which, with a portion of the tar and feathers, which adhered to him, he preserved in a box, and soon after carried with him to England, as the testimonials of his sufferings in the cause of his country. On his arrival in England soon after this catastrophe Malcom obtained an annual pension of fifty pounds, but lived only two years after to enjoy it.

On relating this adventure, the very excitement which the affront must have wrought upon him, evidently began to rekindle, and he remarked with emphasis, I shall carry to my grave the scar which the wound Malcom gave me left on my head; and passing my finger over the spot to which he directed it, there was obviously such a scar, as must have been occasioned by the wound he had described.

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1773: Levi Ames, Boston burglar

Add comment October 21st, 2019 Headsman

Must Thieves who take men’s goods away
Be put to death? While fierce blood hounds,
Who do their fellow creatures slay,
Are sav’d from death? This cruel sounds.

But, ah! Alas it seems to me,
That Murder now is passed by
While Priests and Rulers all agree
That this poor Criminal must die.

What can they no compassion have?
Upon the poor distressed Thief,
Will none appear his life to save
Or pray that he may have relief?

Oh no! The Ministers they say,
For him there can be no reprieve;
He must be hang’d upon the day,
And his just punishment receive.

-“Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames” (1773 broadside)

On this date in 1773, burglar Levi Ames was hanged in colonial Boston for burglary.


Illustration from a 1773 broadside announcing Levi Ames’s controversial execution (click for an image of the entire document).

This young thief’s death — and his surprising purchase on public sympathy in view of the recent politically charged gallows escape by crown loyalist Ebenezer Richardson for killing patriot protester Christopher Seider — are extensively excavated by Anthony Vaver (author of the books Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) at his site Early American Crime. I can’t begin to improve upon this series.

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1733: Rebekah Chamblit

Add comment September 27th, 2019 Headsman

Below follows the full text the gallows ephemera by which print culture recalls for posterity a domestic tragedy of colonial Boston … whose arch phrasing (“sorry for any rash Expressions I have at any time uttered since my Condemnation … I have had more comfort and satisfaction within the Walls of this Prison, than ever I had in the ways of Sin”) strongly implies that it was foisted on her others or

My read of the “September 26” date that appears at the end is that the witnesses notarized the statement on the day prior to the execution.

The Declaration, Dying Warning and Advice of Rebekah Chamblit:

A Young Woman Aged Near Twenty-Seven Years, Executed at Boston September 27th. 1733. According to the Sentence Pass’d Upon Her at the Superiour Court Holden There for the County of Suffolk, in August Last, Being Then Found Guilty of Felony, in Concealing the Birth of Her Spurious Male Infant, of Which She Was Delivered When Alone the Eighth Day of May Last, and Was Afterwards Found Dead, as Will More Fully Appear by the Following Declaration, Which Was Carefully Taken From Her Own Mouth

BEING under the awful Appehension of my Execution now in a few Hours; and being desirous to do all the Good I can, before I enter the Eternal World, I now in the fear of GOD, give this Declaration and Warning to the Living.

I Was very tenderly brought up, and well Instructd in my Father’s House, till I was Twelve Years of Age; but alass, my Childhood off in vanity. However, as I grew in Years, my Youth was under very sensible Impressions from the SPIRIT of GOD; and I was awakened to seek and obtain Baptism, when I was about Sixteen Years of Age; and lived for some time with a strictness somewhat answerable to the Obligations I was thereby brought under. But within two or three Years after this, I was led away into the Sin of Uncleannes, from which tie I think I may date my Ruin for this World. After this, I became again more watchful, and for several Years kept my self from the like Pollution, until those for which I am now to suffer.

And as it be necessary, so doubtless it will be expected of me, that I give the World particular account of that great Sin, with the aggravations of it, which has brought me to this Shameful Death: And accordingly in the fear of GOD, at whose awful Tribunal I am immediately to appear, I solemnly declare as follows:

That on Saturday the Fifth Day of May last, being then something more than Eight Months gone with Child, as I was about my Houshold Business reaching some Sand from out of a large Cake, I received considerable hurt, which put me into great Pain, and so I continued till the Tuesday following; in all which time I am not sensible I felt any Life or Motion in the Child within me; when, on the fatal Tuesday the Eighth Day of May, I was Deliver’d when alone of a Male Infant; in whom I did not perceive Life; but still uncertain of Life in it, I threw it into the Vault about two or three Minutes after it was born; uncertain, I say, whether it was a living or dead Child, tho, I confess its probable there was Life in it, and some Circumstances seem to it. I therefore own the Jutice of GOD and Man in my Condemnation, and take Shame to my self, as I have none but my self to Blame and am sorry for any rash Expressions I have at any time uttered since my Condemnation; and I am verily perswaded there is no Place in the World, where there is a more strict regard to Justice than in this Province.

And now as a Soul going into Etern, I most earnestly and solemnly Warn all Persons, particularly YOUNG PEOPLE, and more especially those of my own Sex, the Sins which their Age peculiarly them to; and as the Sin of Uncleanness has brought me into these distressing Circumstances, I would with the greatest Importunity Caution and Warn against it, being perswaded of the abounding of that Sin in this Town and Land. I thought my self as secure, a little more than a Year ago, as many of you now do; but by woful Experience I have found, that Lust when it has conceived bringeth forth Sin, and Sin when it is finished bringeth forth Death; it exposes the Soul not only to Temporal, but to Eternal Death. And therefore as a Dying Person, let me call upon you to forsake the foolish and live: Do not accompany with those you know to be such, and if Sinners entice you do not consent. I am sensible there are many Houses in this Town, that may be called Houses of Uncleanness, and Places of dreadful Temptations to this and all other Sins. O shun them, for they lead down to the Chambers of Death and Eternal Misery.

My mispence of precious Sabbaths lies as a heavy burden upon me; that when I might have gone to the House of GOD, I have been indifferent, and suffer’d a small matter to keep me from it. What would I now give, had I better improv’d the Lord’s Day! I tell you, verily, your Sabbath will sit heavy upon you, when you come into the near prospect of Death and Eternity.

The Sin of Lying I have to bewail, and wou’d earnestly caution against; not that I have took so great a pleasure in Lying; but I have often done so to conceal my Sin: Certainly you had better suffer Shame and Disgrace, yea the greatest Punishment, than to hide and conceal your Sin, by Lying. How much better had it been for me, to have confess’d my Sin, than by hiding of it to provoke a holy GOD, thus to suffer it to find me out. But I hope I heartily desire to bless GOD, that even in this way, He is thus entring into Judgment with me; for I have often thought, had I been let alone to go on undiscovered in my Sins, I might have provok’d in to leave me to a course of Rebellion, that would have ripened me for a more sudden, and everlasting Destruction; and am fully convinc’d of this, that I should have had no solid ease or quiet in my mind, but the Guilt of this undiscover’d Sin lying upon my Conscience, would have been a tormenting Rack unto me all my Days; whereas now I hope GOD has discover’d to me in some measure the evil of this, and all my other Sins enabled me to repent of them in Dust and Ashes and made me earnestly desire and plead with Him for pardon and cleansing in the pecious Blood of the REDEEMER of lost and perishing Sinners: And I think I can say, I have had more comfort and satisfaction within the Walls of this Prison, than ever I had in the ways of Sin among my vain Companions, and think I woud not for a World, nay for ten Thousand Worlds have my liberty in Sin again, and be in the same Condition I was in before I came into this Place.

I had the advantage of living in several religious Famlies; but alass, I disregarded the Instructions and Warnings I there had, which is now a bitterness to me; and so it will be to those of you who are thus favoured, but go on unmindful of GOD, and deaf to all the Reproofs and Admonitions that are given you for the good of your Souls. And I would advise those of my own Sex especially, to chuse to go into religious Families, where the Worship and Fear of GOD is maintained, and submit your selves to the Order and Government of them.

In my younger Years I maintain’d a constant course of Secret Pray for some time; but afterwards neglecting the same, I found by experience, that upon my thus leaving GOD, He was provoked to forsake me, and at length suffer’d me to fall into that great and complicated Sin that has brought me to this Death: Mind me, I first left GOD, and then He left me: I therefore solemnly call upon YOUNG PEOPLE to cherish the Convictions of GOD’s Holy SPIRIT, and be sure keep up a constant course of fervent Secret Prayer.

And now I am just entring nto the Eternal World, I do in the fear of GOD, and before Witnesses, call upon our YOUNG PEOPLE in particular, to secure an Interest in the Lord JESUS CHRIST, and in those precious Benefits He has purchased for His People; for surely the favour of GOD, thro’ CHRIST, is more worth than a whole World: And O what Comfort will this yield you when you come to that awful Day and Hour I am now arriving unto. I must tell you the World appears to me vain and empty, nothing like what it did in my past Life, my Days of Sin and Vanity, and as doubtless it appears now to you. Will you be perswaded by me to that which will yield you the best Satisfaction ad Pleasure here, and which will prepare you for the more abundant Pleasures of GOD’s Right Hand for evermore.

Sign’d and Acknowleg’d in the Presence of divers Witnesses, with a desire that it may be publish’d to the World, and read at the Place of Execution.

Rebekah Chamblit.

September 26th, 1733

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1775: Not Richard Carpenter, strong swimmer

Add comment July 21st, 2019 Headsman

20th [July 1775]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole — upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day, — his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.

-from the diary of Boston selectman Timothy Newell

On or around this date in 1775, an immigrant wig-maker was faux-executed by the British garrisoned in a besieged Boston.

Richard Carpenter was not a figure of decisive importance to the onrushing American Revolution but the excellent and venerable blog Boston 1775 by J.L. Bell has made a wonderful little microhistory of the man by cobbling together his appearances across different sources from his first 1769 business advert until his 1781 death in a British prison hulk.

Carpenter swam across Boston harbor to escape to patriot lines, then swam back into Boston; the Brits who captured him naturally took him for an enemy agent who could have been hanged … but from multiple reports (sometimes with muddled dates) this fate was “merely” visibly prepared for him only to be abated shortly before execution. In Bell’s speculation, hostilities were still not yet fully matured and “neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.”

For an extraordinary snapshot of this revolutionary everyman, click through the full series:

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1734: John Ormesby and Matthew Cushing

Add comment October 17th, 2018 Headsman

If the attached A Few Lines upon the Awful Execution of John Ormesby & Matthew Cushing intrigues, get to know America’s “first celebrity burglar” via a profile from friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals).

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1765: Andrew Oliver lynched in effigy to the Liberty Tree

Add comment August 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1765, Boston patriots lynched the merchant designated as the imperial taxman. They only did so in effigy, but the “execution” scared him permanently off the job while also making a gallows-tree into one of the earliest symbols of American independence.

One of the key pre-revolution irritants for the future United States, the 1765 Stamp Act imposed taxes in the form of stamp duties on a variety of printed products, for the purpose of funding the British army deployed to North America. It was a levy long familiar to London lawmakers but it sent the colonies right around the bend, and since the colonies sat no Member of Parliament who could flip an official wig it also popularized the classic revolutionary slogan about “taxation without representation.”*

Enacted in the spring of 1765 and due to take effect in November, the Stamp Act drew immediate outrage in the colonies and especially in that hotbed of subversion, Boston.

There, Andrew Oliver, scion of a shipping magnate clan, was tapped to collect the levy. It figured to be just the latest in a series of lucrative state appointments. How was he to know in advance that this particular legislation would unleash the crazies? Perhaps he should have given more heed to the publication of ominous warnings over the roster of tax collector names.


Boston Post-Boy, August 5, 1765

On the morning of Wednesday, August 14, a crowd of irate Bostonians mobbed the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street (present-day Washington Street) and upon a large elm tree strung up an effigy of Oliver alongside a boot — the footwear comprising a second, punny, effigy of the Stamp Act’s sponsor the Earl of Bute.

“What greater Joy can NEW-ENGLAND see,” ran the menacing note pinned to the mannequin, “Than STAMPMEN hanging on a Tree!” As is clear from the following newspaper account, versions of which circulated widely in New England, these were no mere theatrics but a very proximate physical threat; even the elm’s property owner dared not take down the provocative display for fear that the crowd would pull down his house. Likewise taking the better part of valor, Oliver pledged to anti-tax colonists that he would not take the office, and he kept his word.**


Providence Gazette, August 24, 1765

After this triumphant debut, the elm in question became a common rallying-point for the hotheaded set, a frequent stage for speechifying, rabble-rousing, and fresh instances of popular justice all further to the patriot cause until, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “after a while, it seemed as if the liberty of the country was connected with Liberty Tree.” Of course, it’s all a question of whose liberty; a Tory gloss on this deciduous republican made it “an Idol for the Mob to Worship; it was properly the Tree ordeal, where those, whom the Rioters pitched upon as State delinquents, were carried to for Trial, or brought to as the Test of political Orthodoxy.” When besieged in Boston in 1775-1776, British Tories cut the damned thing down, so for subsequent generations it was only the Liberty Stump.


“The Colonists Under Liberty Tree,” illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, page 109 (1865)

The Liberty Tree is commemorated today at its former site, and forever in verse by revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine.

In a chariot of light from the regions of day,
The Goddess of Liberty came;
Ten thousand celestials directed the way,
And hither conducted the dame.

A fair budding branch from the gardens above,
Where millions with millions agree,
She brought in her hand as a pledge of her love,
And the plant she named Liberty Tree.

The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourished and bore;
The fame of its fruit drew the nations around,
To seek out this peaceable shore.

Unmindful of names or distinctions they came,
For freemen like brothers agree;
With one spirit endued, they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.

Beneath this fair tree, like the patriarchs of old,
Their bread in contentment they ate
Unvexed with the troubles of silver and gold,
The cares of the grand and the great.

With timber and tar they Old England supplied,
And supported her power on the sea;
Her battles they fought, without getting a groat,
For the honor of Liberty Tree.

But hear, O ye swains, ’tis a tale most profane,
How all the tyrannical powers,
Kings, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;

From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Through the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our Liberty Tree.

* Visitors to the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., whose 700,000 residents cast no votes in the Congress they live cheek by jowl with, can find this familiar grievance right on the city’s license plates.

** How far this surly bunch was prepared to go on August 14, 1765, one can only guess at; however, in later years, there would be several instances of Bostonians tarring and feathering various tax collectors. These guys did not do civility politics.

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1784: Dirick Grout and Francis Coven, Boston burglars

Add comment October 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1784, American Revolutions veteran Dirick (sometimes Dirich or Derach) Grout and Francis Coven (or Coyen) were hanged in Boston for burglary.

Coven was a Frenchman who had come to North America with the French expeditionary force deployed to support the colonial rebels; Grout was a New Yorker of Dutch extraction who had served in the Continental Army. Both were caught up in the economic collapse that hit the newly independent states upon the revolution’s 1780s conclusion — from which soil emerged a property crime wave around wealthy Boston that led Justice Nathaniel Sargent to fret that “vicious persons” now were “roving about the countryside disturbing peoples rest and preying upon their property.” Small wonder when, as the Massachusetts Centinel noted, “we daily see men speculating with impunity on the most essential articles of life, and grinding the faces of the poor and laborious as if there were no God.”

According to Alan Rogers’s Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts (which is also the source of the preceding paragraph’s quotes), there was not only a “sharp jump in the number of postwar executions” but a shift in the proportion of those executions that underscored the Commonwealth’s alarm at its bold and violent thieves:

In the two decades after 1780 a very different pattern emerged: the rate of executions throughout the commonwealth nearly doubled and the crimes for which men and women were put to death changed dramatically. Of the seventeen men and one woman executed in Boston during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, only four were convicted murderers, but nine burglars and five highway robbers were hanged, almost the reverse of the data for the first seven decades of the century.

Both of our gentlemen today were among its casualties, and both had been repeat offenders; Coven took 30 lashes as punishment for a previous robbery in 1782. Grout went on a burglary spree that hit multiple houses and shops around Boston. Both received death sentence at the August 31 sitting of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.*

* Other sentences handed down “for various thefts” at the same proceedings, according to the Salem Gazette (September 14, 1784):

Cornelius Arie, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Thomas Joice, to be whipt 25 stripes, and branded.

William Scott, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

John Goodbread and Edward Cooper, 15 each.

James Campbell, to be whipt 30 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Michael Tool, to be whipt 20 stripes.

Meanwhile, “a villain who was tried for burglary with the above-mentioned Joice, last Friday, but acquitted, was no sooner discharged, than he, with another equally meritorious scoundrel, forced open a window of the store of Mr. Daniel Sears, on Greene’s wharf, and were fleecing it of merchandize to a considerable amount, when, to their praise be it spoken, the night guardians of this city caught them in the very act, before they had time even to return by the way they had feloniously stolen in. They were both committed to jail before Saturday’s rising sun of the next day.”

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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

1 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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA

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