1752: Nicholas Mooney, penitent thief

Add comment April 24th, 2018 Headsman

From the Boston Gazette, Aug. 4, 1752:


BRISTOL, April 18.

Last Saturday about 4 o’Clock in the Afternoon ended the Assizes for this City and County, when Nicholas Mooney, and John Jones, for robbing Mr. Rich, William Cudmore, for returning from Transportation, and Mary Hoar for stealing six Gold Rings and a Sum of Money out of the Dwelling-house of William Wats, at the Henroost on the Back, received Sentence of Death. — When the Prisoners stood at the Bar to receive their Sentence, Mooney address’d the Judge to the following Effect:

My Lord,

Permit me again to entreat for John Jones, whom I have enveigled and brought into this Trouble, (as I have done several others before) that your Lordship would be pleased to spare his Life. — As for my own Part, I have committed many Robberies, and have been a Rebel against my King, and have wronged my Country by Coining Money, for which I can never make the Publick Restitution, and therefore I am content to die as I deserve. — And I pray GOD to bless every one to whom I have done any Wrong. And if there be any Gentlemen of Bristol here whom I have injur’d, I ask them Forgiveness, and especially Mr. Wasborough, (who then stood near him) whom I attempted to Murder, but God sav’d him, for which I can never praise him enough. — My Lord, I only desire three Sundays, and then I am willing to launch into Eternity. And I hope when I come to the Place of Execution, that GOD will open my Mouth to warn all to flee their wicked Course of Life. — I pray GOD bless your Lordship, and the honourable Court, and may the Lord Jesus receive my Sou.

Bristol, April 25. Yesterday about one o’clock in the Afternoon, Nicholas Mooney, John Jones and William Cudmore, were executed on St. Michael’s Hill, pursuant to their sentences. — During the Time they were under Sentence of Death, they were visited by several Clergymen of the Church of England, and by many other religious People. Mooney behaved in a very becoming Manner all the Time, shewing the most evident Tokens of a sincere Repentance, to all who either came to see or converse with him; informing all, what a wicked Man he had been; but that, thro’ the Merits of his Saviour, he had found the Forgiveness of his Sins, and was not afraid to die. — In this State he continued to the End, declaring at the Tree, That he knew that as soon as his Breath was out of his Body, his Soul would go immediately to Heaven. — After Prayer and Singing were over, he deliver’d to the Sheriff the printed Copy of his Life, signed with his own Hand; declaring as the Words of a dying Man, That it contained nothing but what was true, and which he would have published for the Benefit of Mankind.

When he had done speaking, and the Cart drew under the Gallows, he assisted in pulling the Halter over the Tree to himself, as also to Jones; and after a few Moments Ejaculations, they all launch’d into Eternity. — Jones made no Confession publickly; but we hear he privately confessed to a Gentleman that attended him, That he had such a natural Propensity to Thieving, that he had followed that Practice even from his Youth — Cudmore persisted to the last, that his Father was hang’d, & he transported wrongfully: But notwithstanding this, there are Ltters of Credit in Town, which certify, that both him and his Father were notorious for Horse-stealing. It is remarkable, that while Mooney’s [obscured] was knocking off in Newgate, he pray’d & [obscured] said, Death has no Sting for me: When they were off, he said, Blessed be GOD, I am got rid of the Chains of My Sins; and appeared with such Chearfulness, as though he was going to a Wedding. — When the Hangman put the Halter round his Neck in the Parlour of the Prison, he said, Welcome, Halter, I am saved as the Thief upon the Cross. — And when he came to the Gallows, he also said, Welcome Gallows, for I have deserved thee these many Years. — When the Hangman was going to tie up Jones, Mooney said, Tie me up first, for I am the greatest Offender.

After the Cart drew away, the Hangman very deservedly had his Head broke, for endeavouring to pull off Mooney’s Shoes; and a Fellow had like to have been kill’d in mounting the Gallows to take away the Ropes that were left after the Malefactors were cut down. — A young Woman came 15 Miles for the Sake of the Rope from Mooneys Neck, which was given to her; it being by many apprehended, that the Halter of an executed Person will charm away the Ague, and perform many other Cures.

A little Time before the Criminals went to the Execution, a Person came to Mooney from a Gentleman in the West, from whom he had received great Favours, to tell him he had received a handsome Letter from him, and that he had sent him to condole him in his unhappy Circumstances: He replied, I am happy, — My Time is short. — GOD bless Mr. M–w. — The Letter was this.

Bristol, April 14, 1752.

SIR,

Before I die, I take this Opportunity to acknowledge your Kindness to me in Time past. — Oh! that I had deserved it, for then I had not brought myself into these Circumstances: But GOD is wise, and seeing I would not hear his Voice and turn from any wicked Life, he gave me up to my own Heart’s Lust, and permitted me to fill up the Measure of mine Iniquity, that in me at last might be shewn the Severity of his Justice, and the Riches of his Mercy. — You took me, the most abandon’d Wretch to be an honest Man and as such you kindly and generously recommended me where I might have done well. It is my own Fault I did not. — On Friday 7-night I am to meet the Fate my Crimes have too justly deserved. — I deserve not only Death, but Hell: To the former Man hath doomed me; from the latter Christ will save me. — Of this I have such a firm Hope in myself, being assured that GOD is reconciled to me, (oh! the Riches of his Mercy in Christ Jesus) that my Prison is a Palace, my Chains are Ornaments, and I am quite happy. — I hope every one will pray for me, that my Faith fail not. — I am longing for Death, and in firm Expectation of a glorious Resurrection to eternal Life.

Your much obliged and dying Servant,
Nic. Mooney.

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1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

Add comment January 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

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1781: Benjamin Loveday and John Burke, “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy”

1 comment October 12th, 2015 Headsman

October 12, 1781 saw the hanging at Saint Michael’s Hill in Bristol of Benjamin Loveday and John Burke — “for the detestable Crime of Sodomy; they were both capitally convicted on the clearest Evidence, which is shocking to Human Nature to describe.”

The newspaper reporting, both slight and heartbreaking, can be perused at the website of gay history expert Rictor Norton, here. Between the lines, it suggests Loveday as the proprietor of a molly house or something very like it — an establishment catering to the underground market in same-sex desire, the like of which periodically surfaced in moral panic episodes in the 1700s and early 1800s. (See Norton’s topical Mother Claps Molly House: Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830.)

Loveday, “about 41 years of age … was formerly waiter at a principal inn in Bristol, but had lately kept a public-house in Tower Lane.” The younger Burke “had acted as a midshipman in the impress service, and he was the unlucky one. Three other men, Joseph Giles, James Lane, and William Ward, also faced potentially lethal charges of committing sodomy with Loveday at the same assizes; Giles and Lane got off with misdemeanor convictions and Ward was acquitted outright.

About Twelve o’Clock they were brought out of Newgate, and being placed in a Cart, moved in slow Procession to the fatal Tree, preceded by the Under-Sheriff on Horse-back, and other proper Offices; and attended in a Chariot by the Rev. Mr. Easterbrooke and two other Clergymen, who have frequently visited them since their Conviction, and earnestly laboured to bring them to a due Sense of their Crime, and a Confession of their Guilt. To and at the Place of Execution, their Behaviour was decent, and becoming their awful Situation; and though their Convicted was founded on clear and positive Evidence, yet with their last Breath, they both, in the most solemn Manner, protested their Innocence respecting the Crime for which they were doomed to suffer; but at the same Time acknowledged themselves to have been guilty of many heinous Offences. (Oxford Journal, Oct. 20, 1781)

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1686: Jonathan Simpson, merchant turned highwayman

Add comment September 8th, 2013 Headsman

Jonathan Simpson, hanged on this date in 1686, had a good many virtues to judge by the account of his life left by the Newgate Calendar.

He was, first, an enterprising man, who served his apprenticeship “with reputation” and then set up shop as a successful linen-draper in the city of Bristol.

This business enabled him to augment the fortune of his own business by marrying a merchant’s daughter — “but the union proved unhappy, because the young lady was before engaged in affection to a gentleman of less fortune in the neighbourhood, whom her father hindered her from having, and with whom she continued a familiarity that soon displeased her husband.”

Such a scenario has been the germ of many a denizen of this here blog, but Simpson didn’t reach the gallows doing anything as straightforward as murdering his rival or his spouse out of pique.

Instead — and the Calendar leaves the hows and whys of this translation unexplored — he channeled his jealousy into a crime spree. Maybe that’s just the writer’s projection: fella went around the bend, it must’ve been because of a woman. The Newgate Calendar, too, had a home life, and many was the Briton who dreamt of escaping the drudgery of it all for a life of adventure and romance making gentlemen stand and deliver.

At any rate, Simpson managed a career of 18 months on the road, burning through his linen-draper savings (and his highwayman “earnings”) to escape a couple of potential capital prosecutions. (At this time, criminal complaints were initiated by private prosecutions, meaning that a victim prepared to accept direct restitution could potentially be bought off pressing a case.)

This brings us to another of Simpson’s admirable qualities: his silver tongue.

One can only speculate how he wheedled his onetime victims behind closed doors to drop their suits. But the Newgate Calendar attests to the man’s wit under pressure once he was finally hauled to the fatal tree.

It turns out that Simpson did well in business because his family had done well in business before him, and dad staked him to £1,500 when the lad went into business himself. These prosperous burghers accordingly rallied to exert their own wealth and influence behind the scenes to obtain for their kin a timely commutation, delivered only “when he was at Tyburn, with the halter about his neck, and just ready to be turned off in company with several others.” Then bureaucracy happened.

When he was brought to the prison door, the turnkey refused to receive him, telling the officer that, as he was sent to be executed, they were discharged of him, and would not have anything to do with him again, unless there was a fresh warrant for his commitment; whereupon Simpson made this reflection: “What an unhappy cast-off dog am I, that both Tyburn and Newgate should in one day refuse to entertain me! Well, I’ll mend my manners for the future, and try whether I can’t merit a reception at them both the next time I am brought hither.”

That’s kind of funny, right? In a self-destructive braggadocio sort of way?

And then Simpson demonstrated a third quality that (in addition to dad’s money) helped him succeed in commerce before his midlife crisis: his phenomenal industry. Simpson, we are told, committed “above 40 robberies” in Middlesex in the six weeks after his reprieve, a healthy pace of one per day.

He robbed the powerful (our writer credits him with a successful stickup of the king’s own son); he robbed the hoi polloi (“the robberies he committed on drovers, pedlars, market-people, etc., were almost innumerable”); he robbed on ice skates;* when he was finally captured, it was by two captains of the Foot Guards whom he was also attempting to rob.

The man lived to rob. On this date in 1686, he finally died for it.

* The online text versions of the Calendar notice Simpson’s skatebourne pilfering during “the great frost of 1689, which held thirteen weeks,” obviously not chronologically correct relative to his execution date. This is an error, likely on the part of software somewhere along the line; the year in question should be 1684 (computers like to mix up fours and nines). 1684 was one of the longest and deepest winter freezes on record, leaving the iced-over Thames bustling with Londoners at the “Frost Fair”.


“[W]hat unheard of rendezvous is daily kept upon the face of [London’s] navigable river; what long and spacious streets of booths and tents are builded; what throngs of passengers, both horse and foot, do travel; what pyramids of provisions, baked, boiled, and roast; what deluges of wine, coffee, beer, ale, and brandy, for sale; what fleets of vessels sailing upon sledges; what troops of coaches, caravans, and waggons; what games and new invented sports and pastimes, bull-baiting, bear-baiting, &c.; together with shops for the vending of most sorts of manufactures and for working artificers, the account of which alone would require a volume to describe …” (Source)

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1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

1 comment March 10th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.

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1935: Del Fontaine, punch drunk boxer

1 comment October 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”

Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.

But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.

By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.

Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.

The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.

Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)

If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.

The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.

This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessive infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.

Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.

The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.

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1736: Both John Vernham and Joshua Harding survive a hanging

Add comment September 3rd, 2010 Headsman

Bristol, September 4.

Yesterday at 12 o’Clock, Vernham and Harding, were carry’d from Newgate to the Place of Execution on St. Michael’s hill, attended by the Under-Sheriff, and his Officers, and the Constables of the City, (in a Cart, with Halters about their Necks;) the Divine who attended them, having finish’d his last Office, the Cart drew away: But to the Surprize of every one, after hanging the usual Time, and being cut down, Vernham was perceived to have Life in him, when put into the Coffin; and some Lightermen and others, who promis’d to save his Body from the Surgeons, carried him away to a House; and a Surgeon being sent for, immediately open’d a Vein, which to recovered his Senses, that he had the Use of Speech, far up, robb’d his knees, shook Hands with divers persons that he knew, and to all seeming Appearance, a perfect Recovery was expected.


Appropriately metaphorical image of a gateway on St. Michael’s Hill in Bristol, (cc) Daniele Sartori.

The Rumour of this, soon came to the Under-Sherif’s Ears, who, with Mr. Legg, and several Officers armed, went to know the Truth, and finding it certain, were about to remove him to a proper Place, in order to have him again under their Care for a second Execution,and finishing the Law; which we hear would have been done in a private Manner, without any Ceremony: But whether any secret Method was used to dispatch him, or not, he died about Eleven o’ Clock, in great Agony of Pain, his Bowels being very much convls’d, as appeared by his rolling from one Side to the other, and often on his Belly.

{He was bout 20 Years of Age; while [under] Sentence of Death he behaved very penitent, laying the whole of his Misfortune upon a fatal Companion,* particularly as to the breaking open Mrs. Atherton’s House. Harding behaved very unconcerned, charging his Wife with being the chief Inset to his Misfortunes, and even curs’d her just before he received the Sacrament that Morning.}

And to our second Surprize, Joshua Harding is also come to Life again, and is actually now in Bride-well, where great Numbers of People resort to see him, Particularly Surgeons, curious of Observations. He lies in his Coffin, covered with a Rug, has Pulsation, breathes freely, and has a regular Look with his Eyes; but he has not been heard to speak, only motions with his Hand where his Pain lies. ‘Twas thought he would be executed a second Time {to the finishing his unhappy Fate by a private Execution, at the same Tree he was cut down from}; but we are now told, he is to be provided for in some convenient House of Charity, with Restraint, he being to all Appearance defective in his Intellects. Two such Resurrections happening at one Instant in the World, was never heard of in the Memory of man.**

The Virginia Gazette, Dec. 24, 1736. {Curly-braces portions from an otherwise largely identical report in The South Carolina Gazette, Jan. 15, 1737.}

Coverage from The Daily Gazetteer is available here. The London Magazine adds the detail that all those curiosity-seekers visiting Harding “give him Money” and “are very inquisitive whether he remembers the Manner of his Execution: to which he says, he only can remember his being at the Gallows, and knows nothing of Vernham’s being with him.”

* This Annals of Bristol says that Vernham nearly refused to plead until the prospect of judicial pressing caused him to chicken out. (And ironically, to the extent it forwarded his execution date to this evidently felicitous occasion, almost saved his life.)

** Two hanged men reviving at once is remarkable indeed, but it was not so strange at this time for individual prisoners to survive their executions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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