1861: Martin Doyle, the last hanged for attempted murder

Add comment August 27th, 2019 Headsman

Outside Chester Prison in Cheshire on this date in 1861, Martin Doyle became the last hanged in Britain for “mere” attempted murder.

He’d battered his lover, Jane Brogine, nearly to death — but not all the way to death — on May 30th. “Jane, say no more, I intend to have your life; I came for it, and I will have it,” he incriminatingly declared during the assault, just to leave no possible doubt. If his intent was clear enough, it turned out that 21 blows from a heavy rock were not so sufficient as Doyle supposed to the execution of the deed. Brogine survived, creeping away to the aid of a passing Good Samaritan once Doyle departed the scene thinking her dead.

Great Britain in 1861 thoroughly overhauled its criminal statutes, including an Offences Against the Person Act that rejiggered a variety of punishments, setting the punishment for attempted murder at a prison sentence:

Whosoever shall administer to or cause to be administered to or to be taken by any Person any Poison or other destructive Thing, or shall by any Means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily Harm to any Person, with Intent in any of the Cases aforesaid to commit Murder, shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the Discretion of the Court, to be kept in Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Three Years, or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour, and with or without Solitary Confinement.

The above, in Section 11, and similar language in Sections 12, 13, 14, and 15, replaced the attempted murder language of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1837:

Whosoever shall administer to or cause to be taken by any Person any Poison or other destructive Thing, or shall stab, cut, or wound any Person, or shall by any Means whatsoever cause to any Person any bodily Injury dangerous to Life, with Intent in any of the Cases aforesaid to commit Murder, shall be guilty of Felony, and being convicted thereof shall suffer Death.

Unfortunately for Mr. Doyle, the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 did not receive royal assent until August 6 … which meant that what he’d done to Jane Brogine in May still was a capital felony back when he’d done it.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Public Executions

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1778: James “Sandy Flash” Fitzpatrick

4 comments September 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Revolutionary War-era bandit James Fitzpatrick was hanged — very badly — at Chester, Pennsylvania.

Fitzpatrick was then, and still is now, a legendary character in Chester County. He’s better known as “Captain Fitz” or, with a bit more flair, “Sandy Flash”.

Born to Irish immigrants in Chester, Fitzpatrick joined up with the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out.

But after being subject to the commonplace but brutal punishment of flogging for some failure of military discipline, Fitzpatrick deserted, swimming off Long Island in the dead of night and eventually returning home. There, he was recognized as a deserter and clapped in jail until he agreed to fight again.

All this built up a terrific grudge in the young man’s heart, and he “agreed” just long enough to get out from behind bars and abscond again. After warding off yet another press gang sent to retrieve him, Fitzpatrick vengefully took to the road.

This was not necessarily out of bounds for Fitzpatrick’s milieu. As detailed by Rosemary Warden (“‘The Infamous Fitch’: The Tory Bandit, James Fitzpatrick of Chester County,” Pennsylvania History Summer 1995):

Fitzpatrick’s bold outlawry must be seen against the background of many Chester Countians’ lack ofsupport for the Revolution, ranging from passive neutrality to outright loyalism. Forty percent were Quaker, settled most heavily in the eastern township. Only a small number actively supported the Revolution or the British cause … Fitzpatrick’s two favorite targets, militia recruiters and tax collectors, often met violent opposition in Chester County during this period, and not always from loyalists …

It is not surprising that revolutionary General Anthony Wayne wrote to Council President Thomas Wharton in the spring of 1778, to suggest that he stop recruiting troops in Chester County, a wasted effort, and concentrate on raising men in Berks, Lancaster, York, or Cumberland Counties. Nor is it surprising that a loyalist bandit who particularly targeted militia officers would find clandestine support and safe hideouts in Cheser County.

Playing to the hilt the part of “Tory highwayman,” Captain Fitz targeted Chester County Whigs, and especially agents of the revolutionary government. And he did not neglect the opportunity to inflict with the flog the suffering he had once endured himself. Still,

Despite his many crimes, there was a rough chivalry in the character of the man which exhibited itself in his marked gallantry towards women, in his open, generous disposition to aid them on when ill fortune bore heavily; indeed, he was never known to rob a poor man or ill-treat a female. Many are the instances related when he bestowed upon the destitute that which he had taken from those in good circumstances, and the weak or defenseless never suffered at his hands. On one occasion an old woman, who made a meagre living by peddling from house to house odds and ends of female apparel, encountered Fitzpatrick in the neighborhood of Caln Friends’ meeting-house. She was at the time on her way to Philadelphia to buy goods, and all the money she possessed was on her person. She had never seen Capt. Fitzpatrick, and she informed, the tall, handsome stranger that she was told that the outlaw had made some demonstrations in that neighborhood a short time before, and she was afraid that she might fall in with him and be robbed of all her money. Fitzpatrick, by a few questions, drew from her the particulars of her business, and her difficulty in winning an honest livelihood. He then good naturedly told her she need be under no apprehension, Fitzpatrick never warred upon the weak or defenseless, that she was talking to that personage; and taking a purse from his pocket containing several gold pieces, he gave it to her to aid her in increasing her scanty stock of goods. Then, wishing her a safe journey, he turned into the woods and disappeared.

What a guy.

His prey among the Whig well-to-do not being constrained to treat Fitz with any similar measure of gallantry, the bandit was at length captured when, in the course of raiding a household, he briefly set down his weapons — and his hostages jumped him. (The hostages in question had an argument with each other afterwards over who should get the reward.)

“Sandy Flash” is a prominent character in Bayard Taylor‘s portrait of revolutionary Pennsylvania, The Story of Kennett, where, Turpin-like, he’s “transformed” (the author’s own words) “from a living terror into a romantic name.” Here, Bayard dramatizes an allegedly real exploit, in which Fitzpatrick boldly presents himself at a public inn* where a posse hunting him has holed up.

All eyes, turned towards the crossing of the roads, beheld, just rounding the corner-house, fifty paces distant, a short, broad-shouldered, determined figure, making directly for the tavern. His face was red and freckled, his thin lips half-parted with a grin which showed the flash of white teeth between them, and his eyes sparkled with the light of a cold, fierce courage. He had a double-barrelled musket on his shoulder, and there were four pistols in the tight leathern belt about his waist.

Barton turned deadly pale as he beheld this man. An astonished silence fell upon the group, but, the next moment, some voice exclaimed, in an undertone, which, nevertheless, every one heard,—

“By the living Lord! Sandy Flash himself!”

There was a general confused movement, of which Alfred Barton took advantage to partly cover his heavy body by one of the porch-pillars. Some of the volunteers started back, others pressed closer together. The pert youth, alone, who was to form the third party, brought his musket to his shoulder.

Quick as lightning Sandy Flash drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it at the young man’s breast.

“Ground arms!” he cried, “or you are a dead man.”

He was obeyed, although slowly and with grinding teeth.

“Stand aside!” he then commanded. “You have pluck, and I should hate to shoot you. Make way, the rest o’ ye! I’ve saved ye the trouble o’ ridin’ far to find me. Whoever puts finger to trigger, falls. Back, back, I say, and open the door for me!”

Still advancing as he spoke, and shifting his pistol so as to cover now one, now another of the group, he reached the tavern-porch. Some one opened the door of the barroom, which swung inwards. The highwayman strode directly to the bar, and there stood, facing the open door, while he cried to the trembling bar-keeper,—

“A glass o’ Rye, good and strong!”

It was set before him. Holding the musket in his arm, he took the glass, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, spinning a silver dollar into the air, said, as it rang upon the floor,—

“I stand treat to-day; let the rest o’ the gentlemen drink at my expense!”

He then walked out, and slowly retreated backwards towards the corner-house, covering his retreat with the levelled pistol, and the flash of his dauntless eye.

* Specifically, the Unicorn, a patriotic tavern. Filed under “small world”: this pub was owned by Joseph Shippen, the uncle of the woman who would marry soon-to-beturncoat Benedict Arnold.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,USA,Wartime Executions

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1786: Elizabeth Wilson, her reprieve too late

3 comments January 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1786, Elizabeth Wilson was hanged in Chester, Pennsylvania for the murder of her infant twins.

“One of the melodramas of the early American republic,” our Elizabeth (sometimes called “Harriot Wilson” in the accounts) was a farmer’s daughter of Chester County who got knocked up by a passing sailor. When this gentleman declined to make an honest woman of her after she had borne the bastards, the kids disappeared — later to be discovered dead in the woods by a hunter.

The fallen woman denied having killed them directly, but “acknowledged having placed the children by the road-side, in order that any person passing that way, and who had humanity enough, might take them up.”

She would eventually, after condemnation, accuse her lover of having slain the children.

Elizabeth’s brother William Wilson vigorously undertook on this basis to secure her a pardon at the hands of the Commonwealth’s executive authority, the Supreme Executive Council — then under the leadership of no less august a character than Benjamin Franklin.

And he found a sympathetic audience. Council Vice-President Charles Biddle* “firmly believed her innocent, for to me it appeared highly improbable that a mother, after suckling her children for six weeks, could murder them … there was a large majority would have been for pardoning her.”

Instead of an outright commutation, it granted a stay of execution for William Wilson to investigate further, which he did to no successful effect.

“But here we must drop a tear!” exclaims the Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, a popular pamphlet (pdf) sensationalizing the case. “What heart so hard, as not to melt at human woe!”

For William Wilson’s suit on behalf of his sister had succeeded in earning, on the eve of the Jan. 3 hanging, a second respite on Biddle’s certain anticipation that clemency would be forthcoming. Ill himself, William took the stay of execution from Biddle’s own hands and raced through a fearful storm on the 15-mile ride from Philadelphia to Chester … but

did not arrive until twenty-three minutes after the solemn scene was closed. When he came with the respite in his hand, and saw his sister irrecoverably gone, beheld her motionless, and sunk in death, who can paint the mournful scene?

Let imagination if she can!

Imagination can do quite a lot with this sort of material, and so the tale of Elizabeth Wilson — the intrinsic pathos of the condemned, her widely-suspected innocence, her evangelical-friendly repentance, the cliffhanger conclusion — became widely re-circulated, and undoubtedly embroidered.

Quaker colonial diarist Elizabeth Drinker (who had firsthand experience of official injustice, when suspicious-of-Quakers revolutionaries had banished her husband from Philadelphia) was still seeing these publications over a decade after Wilson’s death.

May 16 [1797]. Unsettled. Wind variable. Read a narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, who was executed at Chester, Jany ’86, charged with the murder of her twin infants. A reprieve arrived 20 minutes after her execution, by her brother from Philadelphia. She persisted to the last in her account of the murder being committed by the father of the children, which was generally believed to be the truth. I recollect having heard the sad tale at the time of the transaction.

The Wilson story actually persisted (and persists) for centuries yet. Her shaken brother, William, withdrew himself from society and lived out his last years in a cave: he entered folklore as the Pennsylvania Hermit, affixed with his tragic sister to all manner of spook stories, like a spectral horseman galloping to Chester, or a ghostly woman rummaging the leaves where the bodies were found. You’ll hear all about the Pennsylvania Hermit when touring his former stomping grounds, now open to the public (for a fee, my friend) as Indian Echo Caverns.

* Biddle was a future U.S. Senator, but he’s probably best known through his son. Born just five days after Elizabeth Wilson’s execution, Nicholas Biddle was a bitterly controversial character as one of antebellum America’s original banksters.

Charles Biddle’s notes on the case veer into the era’s philosophical concern with the timeless problem of making a just response to infanticide.

“Perhaps,” he muses “the punishment of death is too great for an unmarried woman who destroys her child. They are generally led to it from a fear of being exposed … [and] while death is the punishment, a jury will seldom find a verdict against them.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Reprieved Too Late,The Supernatural,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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