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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1787: John Bly and Charles Rose, Shaysites

Add comment December 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1787, the only two men to hang for the infant American republic’s seminal post-independence rebellion went to the gallows at Lenox, Massachusetts.

The newborn United States emerged from the American Revolution (1776-1783) in a parlous financial condition. Forever short of gold and credit, it had paid George Washington’s Continental Army in worthless scrip* and promises of goodwill. Instead, many a Cincinnatus returned from Yorktown to discover his debtor farm dunned by creditors and taxmen, as desperate as he for hard currency.

Come 1786, protests against unpayable taxes verged into an outright rural insurrection in western Massachusetts. Known for one of its principals, Daniel Shays — who like so many of his fellows was a Continental Army veteran turned penniless farmer — this rebellion continued for several months and took earnest aim at the hated Massachusetts merchant elites. Some 4,000 “Shaysites” would eventually admit to** taking the field as rebel guerrillas. They mounted an attack on a federal armory, and seized weapons where they could for their own use.

A few books about Shays’s Rebellion

It was this last act which occasions our men’s hangings.

The new American authorities, who had not so many years ago been beckoning this same populace to take up their muskets in revolution, exercised in this moment a brittle authority and they would calculate that the proper balance of due regard for their power without unnecessary resentment entailed only a circumscribed approach.

Instead of charging Shaysites wholesale, most were waved away with a free pardon. And instead of charging treason, the Bay State made its demonstration cases with regular criminal offenses — for burglary when our men John Bly and Charles Rose followed some Shaysite militiaman’s order to confiscate guns and powder from nearby houses. In 1787, that was still a potential hanging offense.

Of course, everyone understood well enough the real offense. On the eve of their executions, someone got the condemned men to sign onto a “Last Words & Dying Speeches” broadsheet with a lesson addressed “To the good People of Massachusetts, more especially to Daniel Shays, and other Officers of the Militia, and the Select men of Towns who have been instrumental in raising the Opposition to the Government of this Commonwealth:”

Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the Government … Advert to those things — live peaceably with all men — be not too jealous of your Rulers — remember that Government is absolutely necessary to restrain the corrupt passions of men — obey your Honest Governors — be not allured by designing men — pay your honest debts and your reasonable taxes — use your utmost endeavours to give peace to your divided, distracted country …

There was another legacy: the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion — and the federal government’s impotence to respond to it (it was haltingly suppressed by state militia, with the insurgents at points escaping into New York for breathing room) — helped catalyze the Constitutional Convention from May to September of 1787, and informed its creation of a stronger federal state and of the system of checks upon democratic action that a rebellious populace might wish to undertake.

There’s a podcast episode about Shays’s Rebellion here.

* So widely shunned was the depreciated paper Continental currency issued during the Revolution that the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered the parlance of the times; it was these notes that had been given to revolutionary soldiers by way of aspirational salary like so many stock options from a foundering Silicon Valley startup. In 1791, these Continentals were bought out by the new federal government at one cent on the dollar.

** This census arrives via applications for the free amnesty eventually offered to the Shaysite rank and file.

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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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1730: Cathrine M’Canna, mother’s daughter

Add comment September 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Original Dublin broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches: From Eighteenth-Century Ireland:


THE LAST SPEECH, CONFESSION AND DYEING WORDS OF

CATHRINE M’CANNA

who is to be Executed near St. Stephens Green, this present Wednesday being the 23d of this Instant September 1730. She being Guilty of several Robberies, in and about the City of Dublin.

Good People,

Since the just Hand of Almighty God has at length over reach’d me, and that I must be cut off in the midst of my Transgressions, I shall in a few Words give you a short Narrative of my base and vicious Life, which is as follows, viz.

I drew my first Breath in this City, and descended of very honest Parents, but I wicked wretch about ten Years ago committed a Robbery, and the said Robbery being found with me, I Swore it was my poor Mother gave it me, upon the same she was Hanged, tho’ Innocent of the fact; and had I never been Guilty of no other offence but that, I doubt were I to live a thousand Years, I should not be able to make Restitution for that one Crime; and if so, Oh my God! what shall become of me, who have spent my time in Whoring and Thieving since I came to the Knowledge of committing either, yet my God will I not Despair in thy Mercies, tho’ I must Confess thou have been over and above good to me, in saving my Life when I was to be Hang’d at Killmainham not long since, that thy saying might be fulfilled, who desireth not the Death of a Sinner, but that he should live and save his Soul alive. But it was not so with me, for I no sooner got my Liberty, but (Dog like return’d to his Vomit,) I follow’d my old Trade again, spearing neither Rich nor Poor. Thus I ran on till about the beginning of August last, I went to the Pyde Bull in St. Thomas Street, and Stole thereout the vallue of five Pounds in Linnen and other things, belonging to one Mr. Murphy in said House, but I was soon taken and committed to Newgate, but when I was Try’d and lawfully convicted for the same, I began to plead my Belly, thinking to save my life but all was in vain, for my Jury of Mattrons would not forswear them selves for me, so I must Dye this Day.

Having no more to say, but beg of all Children to be more Dutiful to their Parents than I have been, I also beg the Prayers of all good Christian, [sic] I dye a Roman Catholick, in the 38th Year of my Age, and the Lord Receive my Soul. Amen.

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1853: Hans McFarlane and Helen Blackwood, married on the scaffold

Add comment August 11th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1853, Hans M(a)cFarlane and Helen Blackwood were hanged before a crowd of some 40,000 souls in Glasgow, Scotland.

It wasn’t the only civic ceremony the couple would participate in that day.

McFarlane and Blackwood had been convicted of murdering Alexander Boyd, a ship’s carpenter with the merchant navy. On June 11 of that year, they drugged his whiskey, hit him over the head with the chamber pot, stripped him down to his pants and socks and threw his body out the third-floor window.

McFarlane, Blackwood, and two alleged accomplices, Ann Young and Mary Hamilton, were arrested immediately. Although they tried to make Boyd’s death out to be an accident, two children in the room, whom the killers had thought were asleep, had witnessed the whole thing and told on them.

In the end, the case against Hamilton was ruled not proven. Young was convicted, but her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Blackwood and McFarlane had to swing.

Douglas Shelton, in his book Deadlier Than The Male: Scotland’s Most Wicked Women, records,

While in Duke Street Prison, McFarlane asked for permission to marry his lover, Blackwood. Permission was refused but they were determined to be man and wife. As they stood on the scaffold near to Glasgow’s South Prison on the site of the present-day High Court, McFarlane announced to the woman — and the 40,000-strong crowd there to see them hang — “Helen Blackwood, before God in the presence of these witnesses I take you do be my wife. Do you consent?”

The woman replied, “I do.”

McFarlane then said, “Then before these witnesses I declare you to be what you have always been to me, a true and faithful wife, and you die an honest woman.”

The minister officiating the hanging then said, “Amen,” the bolt was drawn and the newly married pair fell to their deaths.

Helen Blackwood was the second-to-last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland. This broadside was sold to commemorate her and her husband’s deaths.

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1774: Daniel Wilson

1 comment April 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1774, Daniel Wilson was hanged before a throng of 12,000 in Providence, Rhode Island, for rape.

A journeyman carpenter turned small-time New England crook, Wilson had a gift for escape and busted out of the Providence jail three times — never retaining his liberty long enough to get clear of the gallows’ shadow. Our friends at the wonderful Early American Crime blog cover the man’s career here … absent the rape, whose particulars seem to have escaped the documentary trail and which Wilson also delicately elides in his hang-day broadsheet.

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1696: Thomas Randal, obstinate

Add comment January 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1696, Thomas Randal was executed and hanged in chains for the robbery-murder of a Quaker named Roger Levens or Leavens.

Despite what the broadsheet below would have you believe, Randal never acknowledged the crime and begged forgiveness, at least not outside the confines of his own soul. The Ordinary of Newgate devotes a considerable portion of his 29th January 1696 account to his thorough but unavailing work on Randal’s conscience.

“On Wednesday in the Afternoon I took him aside,” he recounts — seemingly referring to a conversation a week prior to the hanging, which took place on Wednesday the 29th.

and for a considerable time endeavour’d to perswade him, no longer Athiestically [sic] to deny the Crime; but he stood out in the denial of it, whereupon I read to him, what was sworn against him at his Tryal, and that the Jury was fully convinced in their Consciences that he was guilty. Which they declared, when they gave their Verdict. He reply’d, That he did not matter that, being clear in his own Conscience. Then I told him, that he obstructed any Rational Hopes of his Salvation, and that all Persons who read the Book of Tryals, whom I met with, believ’d him to be guilty.

I pray’d, that God would work him to a free and full acknowledgment of his Crime, and grant him Repentance for it. Yet he deny’d it, and said, That he was resolved to to so at the time of his Death. I told him of a Person who Murther’d his Wife, and deny’d it several times at the place of Execution, wishing Damnation on himself, if he knew any thing of it. After I had pray’d thrice, that God would perswade him to declare the Truth; I told him, If I went out of the Cart any more, he would be presently Executed, and then he could not be Saved, dying in his Atheistical Impenitency. At last he call’d me back and said, I Murthered my Wife with a Pistol, and shot her in the Head; but let not the People know it. I said, your self shall declare, that you Murthered her. Then he said, All you that behold me pray for me, that God would Pardon my great Provocation of him denying my Crime against my Conscience; for had I died with a Lye in my Mouth, I had been damned. This Account somewhat startled Randal, and altred his Countenance; then I pray’d again, that God would not leave him to dye in so barbarous a Crime, but to confess it, and to Repent of his former Obstinacy. After this he said not any word by way of reply: Then I told him, that he ought to consider of whatsoever I had said, and I hoped that he would confess the Crime before he dy’d. He said, that he had lived in much Sinning, but would not acknowledge any particular.

Breaking down the obstinance of the doomed was one of the Ordinary’s core competencies but he never managed to add Randal’s soul to his ranks of sheep stealers made saints: the man went to the gallows with the same story on his lips.

On Wednesday the 29 January, Thomas Randal who killed Roger Levens the Quaker, was put into a Cart and conveyed by the Deceased’s Door at White-Chappel, and from thence to the Place of his Execution at Stone-bridge by Kingsland, where he is to hang in Irons, on a Gibbet, till his Body be consumed. He did confess that he was at the Marshalsea with Lock and Green but denied that he never spoke any such Words, that he did kill the Quaker: he acknowledged that he did say to the Serjeant when he was Taken, that he was a Dead Man, and that he had been a very wicked Sinner, and had been Guilty of all manner of Sins in general; (except that of Murder) He owned a Burglary that he committed at Linton, near Saffron Walden in Essex; but would not confess any of his Accomplices. He said that Hunt and he had been in many Robberies. The Worthy Sheriffs did exhort him with Spiritual Council, that he should make an Ingenious Confession, and not to perfist in his Obstinacy, and Dye with a Lye in his Mouth, but to have regard to his precious soul; it wrought nothing upon him, his Heart being so hardened, he would not discover any thing of the Murder; nor any of the Persons that was with him at the time; but hoped that he had done his Work with God-Almighty. Then Mr. Ordinary pressed him, and told him that Confession was the first step to Repentance; and without that he could hardly make his Peace with God; but it did avail nothing with him, he still persisting in the same, till the Cart Drew away; He was turned off.

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1853: Nathaniel Mobbs

Add comment November 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1853, Nathaniel Mobbs hanged for killing his wife.

Mobbs’s loutish drunken abuse was of Catherine Mobbs was audible to many neighbors at his Whitechapel tenement. On the night before he finally murdered her, he was so far gone that Catherine slept at a neighbor’s to stay clear of him. Nathaniel found her the next morning, and physically dragged her back home; that afternoon, an unusually violent row and the prisoner’s screams of “murder!” brought at least two guests scrambling up the stairs to their door, which Mobbs blockaded with a chest — until the “murder!” cries eerily stopped.

Then, the scuffing sound of furniture being moved.

And Catherine staggered out the door and down the steps, her dress and hair gorging on the horrid effluence of her slashed throat. She didn’t say a word before she dropped dead.

This nasty affair is covered by PlanetSlade.com’s murder ballads series, including a broadsheet (pdf) with testimony by the Mobbs’ neighbors, and the usual hanging ballad.

A U.S. band called South County YouTubed a haunting version of the ballad, although I believe they’ve taken some liberty with the lyrics.

This wasn’t Mr. Mobbs’s only brush with the literary. Charles Dickens, who could not but delight in the juxtaposition of pickpockets risking their own necks plying their craft on gallows-gawkers, fastened on just such an incident at the Mobbs execution. (Even if pickpocketing was no longer a capital crime by 1853.)

At Guildhall, on the 22nd, Charles Clark was charged before Alderman Humphery with Stealing a Watch the previous morning in the Old Bailey. Robert Pollard, the prosecutor, said: I was present yesterday morning at the Execution of the man Mobbs. I was in front of the scaffold, when I felt something at my pocket, and then missed my watch.

Alderman Humphery — I suppose you were there to see the man hung? Were there many persons there?

Witness: Yes, sir, a great man.

Alderman Humphery: Did you miss your watch before the execution or afterwards?

Witness: The condemned man was just coming on the scaffold, and before he was hung I saw the prisoner moving from my side. I followed him; but perceiving me behind him, he ran up St. Clement’s Inn-yards, in Old Bailey, and threw himself on some matting. The watch produced by the officer is mine. It is engraved with my own name.

Prisoner: I did not throw myself down, I fell down.

Alderman Humphery: There is one thing very clear. The awful sight of a man being hung has no fear for you. William Gardiner saw the prisoner, on reaching the top of Clement’s Inn yard, throw himself on some sacks and drop something down the iron grating. The witness went below and found the watch produced.

Prisoner: I never took the watch.

Alderman Humphery: You came out to witness the execution of a fellow creature, but it does not appear to have done you any good, for your intention in being there was to pick pockets evidently. It is quite clear that you committed a highway robbery, and that too under the gallows, an offence that was punished at one time with dath. It is too serious a case for me to deal with summarily, and I shall therefore commit you for trial.

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1829: John Stacey, in Portsmouth town

Add comment August 3rd, 2017 Headsman

A barbarous, foul, & horrid deed
I shortly will recite,
Which did occur in Portsmouth town
Upon a Sunday night;
An aged man of eighty years,
His housekeeper likewise,
Were there most basely murdered,
By a monster in disguise.

All in the night, so dark and drear,
He entrance did obtain,
And with a deadly hammer he
Beat out the old man’s brains,
His throat he cut from ear to ear,
Most horrible to view,
And streams of crimson blood did flow
The bed-room through and through.

The aged housekeeper likewise,
Lay butcher’d on the floor,
Her face and hands most cruelly
Were cut, and stabb’d full sore.
Her head it was nearly severed
From off her body quite.
Those who beheld it shivered,
So dreadful was the sight.

When at the bar the murderer stood,
He could not deny his guilt,
‘Twas clearly proved that he
The aged couples blood had spilt;
The Jury found him guilty,
And the Judge to him did say,
You must prepare to end your days,
Upon the gallows high.

Broadside ballad about double murderer John Stacey, hanged adjacent to the house of his victim on August 3, 1829

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1725: John Coamber

Add comment May 5th, 2017 Headsman

The Dublin hanging of John Coamber on this date in 1725 for the previous year’s notorious mugging/murder of a city counselor named Richard Hoar(e) arrives to us, as have several previous posts, via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland.

In this instance, Kelly gives us two rival “last speeches.” It’s a genre that he says was exploding in the 1720s, with the burgeoning of print culture and the importation of similar purported gallows unburdenings.

And as we saw in a 1726 exemplar from the same book, the publishers who flooded this burgeoning market were at daggers drawn with one another over precedence for inside information and autobiographical authenticity. This is another case where one of the documents — Cornelius Carter’s — takes space to take a shot at the rival tract.

We also see here in Carter’s more detailed (and here, sarcastic) narrative that two different, innocent, men were hanged for the murder some time before one of the three real killers saved his own neck by shopping Coamber.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of
John Comber

who is to be Hang’d and Quarter’d this present Wednesday, being the 5th, of this Inst. May 1725. Near St. Stephen’s-Green; for Murdering Councellor Hoar, in January last.

Good Christians,

My Heart has been so hard hitherto, that I had no Manner of thought of either Soul or Body, but now I seeing Death plainly before my Face, causes me to consider of my latter End; and praise God for giving so much Grace so to do; therefore I am resolv’d to make a Publick Confession of my past Life and Conversation, which is as follows.

As to my Birth and Parentage, it is but a folly to relate, yet I can say I came from very honest Parents, who took what Care they could to bring me up in the Love and Fear of God, but I contrary to the Laws of God and Man, have gon [sic] astray, and follow’d Loose Idle Company, which brought me to this untimely Death; and how it came to pass was thus.

I being Entimitly Acquainted with one Patrick Freel, and David McClure, with whom I went to a House in New-street, where we then (after several meetings) made a Plot to get Money, by reason it was scarce with us, at length we Consulted the 19th, of January last, to Robb the first we wou’d meet with, and being over perswaided by the Devil, I went to the House of Mr. Carter and meeting a Child of his, bid him fetch his Dady’s Pistol, and I would fetch him some sweet things, upon the same promise, the Child brought me a Pistol, and then I, in Conjunction with the above Named Persons, went towards Stephen’s-Green, where we met with Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Leeson’s Clerk, whom we Robb’d of a Ten Peney Piece, from that we proceeded to Henry-street, where we met the Deceased Gentleman, to whom I went up, and Demanded his Money, with that he moving his Arm, and I having the Pistol Cock’d, caused the same to go off, tho’ as I shall Answer my God I did not think of being his Butcher; and when I found the Pistol went off, I never staid to know whether he had Money or no, but took to my Heels as fast as I could.

Then I went to the Sign of the Black Swan in Mary’s-Lane, where I and my Comrads met; from that my Prosocuter Patrick Freel and I, went to the Country where we staid for some small Time, then I came back, and as God, who never suffers Murder to be Conceal’d, I was soon Apprehended and put to Goal, upon Suspission, where I lay as good as a Month, but a Proclamation being Isued out, concerning the Murder, he came in and made Oath that I was the Person that Shot the Councellor, which to my sorrow is True.

Having no more to say but beging the Prayers of all good Christians, I die a Roman Catholick, and in the 22d. Year of my Age, and the Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul Amen.

Dublin: Printed by C.P. 1725.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of

John Coamber

who is to be Hang’d, Drawn and Quarter’d this Day, being the 5th of this Instant May 1725. For the Murder of Councellor HOAR in Henry Street the 19th of Jan. last.
Deliver’d to the Printer hereof C. CARTER the 5th of May, and to no other, By me John Coamber. And All others are Imposing on the Publick.

All you my Spectators,

This is to give you the following Account, I was born in the Town which is Call’d Thurles, in the County of Tipperary in Munster, of very honest Parents, that brought me up in the fear of God, and Wou’d give me good Learning, but I was too Head-strong, and wou’d not be Rul’d or Guided by my tender Parents, but left ’em and went to serve a Tobacco-twister, which I work’t at for about 5 years, being weary of that I came for Dublin, being a stranger, I turn’d Porter about Cork-hill, where I stood and follow’d that business for near 3 years, all this time I behav’d my self very honestly, and was well belov’d by all that knew me, especially in the above Neighbourhood, being weary of that, I took a fancy to Cry News about this City, which in a little time, I began to get a great many pence by it, and in sometime after, I became Acquainted with Idle and loose Company, Viz. and in the process of time I came to be acquainted with particular Persons and some others who first brought me in Company among Whores to Drink and spend my Money &c. Which was the first Cause of my Destruction.

Afterwards I went of my own Accord, and follow’d the said Evil Custom and other ill Actions, then I became as obdurate and as Wicked as the worst of my Ring-leaders.

I have Reason to Curse them Idle fellows which made me first acquainted with the whores and Pick-pockets in this City, of which there is abundance too many.

But finding Money not Answering to keep the above Company, being acquainted with one David McClure who was my chief Comrade, and who made his Escape to France after the Murder was Committed, he and I stuck together, and followed a very Idle Course of Life, and we Committed several ill Facts in this City and Liberties thereof.

All our shifts not Answering, I, McClure, and Patrick Freel (who was the first Evidence against me) Resolv’d to turn Robber, but never did design to be Guilty of Murder, and did design when we got a Sum of money that was worth While, to leave the Country.

I confess, that Patrick Freel, David McClure and I went on the 19th of January last at Night, to Henry Street, with a Design to Rob, or Plunder the first Gentleman that came that way; which was the luck of that worthy honest Gentleman Councellor Hoar, though I declare before God I did not design to hurt him, or any Man else that time.

I do also Confess that I did own to the Blind Boy, Lawrence Dugan, (who was the t’other Evidence against me) that Patrick Freel, David McClure and I myself, were all Guilty of the Murder for which I now suffer, but I wonder he did not Discover, it when one Pitts and another one Hand, had like to suffer for this Murder. (emphasis added -ed.)

I further Declare, tho’ it was falsely and Scandalously Publish’d in Print, by one Mrs. Needham and her Son Dickson; that I had got Mr. Carter’s Pistols from his young Son about 8 years of Age, (we had but one Pistol among us) and as I am a Dying Man I got no such thing from the said Child, nor none of his Family, neither did I steal any such thing out of his House in my Life time.

I accused one Daniel Field and Michael Tankard falsly, which I am heartily sorry for, but it was by the Advice of Winfred Dunn and Patrick Dunn the 2 Informers, that swore against Pitts and Hand that was Try’d the last Term for this Fact.

I beg of my great God to forgive my Prosecutors, and all my Enemies, as I do forgive them from the bottom of my heart.

I hope this my untimely End will be a Warning to my Comrades, and also to all young Men, which I pray to God it may. For my own part I own I am Guilty of the Fact for which I Die, And I hope the Lord of his infinite Goodness, will have Mercy on my Soul and forgive me.

I am about 19 Years of Age I dye a Roman Catholick, and Desires the Prayers of all Good Christians, and the Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul. Amen.

JOHN COAMBER

DUBLIN: Printed by Corn. Carter. 1725.

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