Tag Archives: daniel defoe

1708: William Gregg, spy of slob

William Gregg was hanged and quartered on this date in 1708 as a French spy.

Given a recent near-miss prosecution for counterfeiting — his pregnant wife saved Gregg’s bacon by taking the blame, and had her hand branded for the trouble — Gregg wasn’t the type who would get a security waiver in the diplomatic corps nowadays.

But the job market is all about who you know, and Gregg’s father knew the previous Home Secretary.* The young man therefore pulled an impecunious appointment to an underclerkship for that same office under the management of Robert Harley.

Harley was a powerful minister who among other things consummated the tricky union of England and Scotland. He was also — according to the writer Daniel Defoe, whose able quill Harley had obtained by relieving the writer’s debts when they were so heavy as to land him in prison — an inveterate slob. Defoe claims that he reprimanded his boss for the “most complete disorder” in his office, in which strewn everywhere “papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment.”

Gregg was the man who would succumb to the temptation.

Getting by on Bob Cratchit wages, Gregg realized that he was essentially working in a gold mine … and he started selling the bullion to France, by copying interesting documents and sending them abroad.

The treason was detected by a Brussels postmaster late in 1707: evidently Gregg sent his copies to the French ministry with a helpful cover letter identifying himself by name.

This crime had deep political ramifications; Whigs who had within living memory suffered the indignity of seeing their greatest leaders sent to the block by the Tories after the Monmouth rebellion entertained some vivid plans for the Tory Harley once Gregg was arrested.

But the man who would sell his country for gold would not sell his boss for his life. Condemned to die a traitor’s death on January 9, Gregg languished more than three months while Whig lords inveigled him with promises of mercy if he should condescend to expose a wider Tory plot. Gregg staunchly stuck to his story: that it was he alone who committed espionage, and the means was nothing but Harley’s untidiness. The scandal was sufficient to force Harley’s resignation, but Gregg’s failure to cooperate denied Harley’s enemies a wider and bloodier purge.

Gregg was convicted on the statute of Edward III, which declares it high treason ‘to adhere to the king’s enemies, or to give them aid either within or without the realm.’

Immediately after his conviction, both houses of Parliament petitioned the queen that he might be executed; and he accordingly hanged at Tyburn, with Morgridge, on the 28th April, 1708.

Gregg, at the place of execution, delivered a paper to the sheriff of London and Middlesex, in which he acknowledged the justice of his sentence, declared his sincere repentance of all his sins, particularly that lately committed against the queen, whose forgiveness he devoutly implored.

He likewise expressed his wish to make all possible reparation for the injuries he had done; begged pardon in a particular manner of Mr Secretary Harley, and testified the perfect innocence of that gentleman, declaring that he was no way privy, directly or indirectly, to his writing to France. He professed that he died an unworthy member of the Protestant church, and that the want of money to supply his extravagances had tempted him to commit the fatal crime which cost him his life.

Newgate Calendar

* The Home Office technically only dates to 1782. Its predecessor post as it existed in the first years of the eighteenth century was actually Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

1727: Three at Tyburn

Daniel Defoe* once summarized early 18th century England’s class strata as

  1. The great, who live profusely
  2. The rich, who live plentifully
  3. The middle sort, who live well
  4. The working trades, who labour hard, but feel no want
  5. The country people, farmers, etc. who fare indifferently
  6. The poor, who fare hard
  7. The miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.

These ranks of “poor” and “miserably poor” were quite enormous in the 18th century, with something like a tenth of the population subsisting below the “breadline” even when the harvests were good.

It is arguably the struggle to control this lot that brings us that era’s notoriously aggressive “Bloody Code” of hanging laws; certainly the law flaunts its class character openly in many particular capital statutes such as the Black Acts to enforce rural enclosure and harsh laws against labor organizing.

The heaving of these great swells could not but drown a great many already struggling to keep their heads above the waves. And our visit this week to the Ordinary of Newgate brings a sad quartet of Tyburn hangings culled from that fringe of disposable young men “that really pinch and suffer want.”

Thomas Johnson, alias “Handy”

Handy’s nickname tells us something about the progress of his life, for (according to the Ordinary) in his infancy “his Right Arm and Hand had been bruis’d, so that being distorted, they decay’d and were only of the bigness of a Child’s Arm and Hand, neither had he the Use of them, having no strength and scarce any Motion in them.”

Abandoned to be succored by the Stepney parish poor relief around the age of three, Handy was considered able-bodied enough to be dropped from the rolls once he hit adolescence — and maybe the gentlemen of Stepney had a point, for Handy once set to shift for himself “turn[ed] Thief and Housebreaker … [and] made considerable proficiency, and turn’d dexterous in his Profession.” But he had a near-impossible task of finding honest work: city and country were everywhere awash in working poor ready to hire who had two good hands.

Eventually one of Handy’s misadventures caught him a sentence to convict transportation — which was yet another juridical innovation of the Hanoverian age for managing the mother country’s vast underclass. But transportation, a sort of mercantile slavery in the colonies, depended for its part on a market for the human cargo and our man’s crippled arm again militated against him. Handy would lament this again at the very gallows, where he

exclaim’d against one who Transported Felons, saying that after he had caused them to Work for him in these foreign Countries; he brought them Home to England in the same Ship which he had carried them off; and that the Reason of his returning was, because No body would Buy him, and that he must have starv’d there and that when at Home he had no way to get his Bread because he wanted his Right Hand to enable him for Work.

This act — returning from convict transportation — itself constituted a capital crime. And when arrested again, Handy confessed it, almost whimsically. He would tell the Ordinary that he was wearying of life and anticipated additional indictments, but the record of the trial suggests that he sent himself to the gallows to revenge himself on the informers who would have made evidence against him in hopes of pocketing a reward: “the Prosecutors thought to hang him for the sake of the 40 Pounds allowed by the Government, but he would baulk their Expectations, for he would be hanged for returning from Transportation according to Law.”

Samuel Hammond

In comparison to Handy, Samuel Hammond had it made.

Apprenticed to a man named Thomas Barker, Hammond had a path to Defoe’s “working trades” class (“who labour hard, but feel no want”), undone by a youth’s impulsiveness. One day when Barker chastised him — “You Blockhead you’ll break the Drill, why don’t you use the Pliers” — Barker grabbed a sword and stabbed him through the ribcage. Barker’s son arrived to find the apprentice brandishing the weapon over his fallen father, “saying to the Decesed [sic], D – n your B – d you Son of a B – h I’ll kill you; upon which then Deceased said, you have done it already.”

The Ordinary reported that Hammond was tearfully repentant and insisted even before his conviction on joining chapel services for the condemned. The only grievance he could point to against his master besides that “blockhead” burn was that he was sweet on a maid in the house whom Barker had also “corrected … for a Fault” months before. We hear this frightened young man through the Ordinary here, so one can only guess whether our surviving account elides a longer litany of domestic cruelty for the boy or the maid.

“Luckily” Samuel Hammond did not suffer the ignominy of hanging for all that: he fell grievously ill in the pestilential Newgate cells, and “after that Sentence of Death was pronounc’d upon him, he was never able to rise and go to Chappel, but lay in a high Fever, to Thursday, the 7th of September, when about 11 o’Clock at Night he expir’d.”

Henry Chaplin and Peter Boother

These housebreakers each blamed the other as well as several other confederates (one of them still at large, plus two others who had given evidence against them) as the principal authors of the robbery that did them in. Oh, sure, they were there, invading Daniel Lyver’s house — where the gang “in a violent Manner broke the Windows, burst open the Window-Shutters and the Door, took the Goods mentioned in the Indictment, and beat him [Lyver] at the same Time with much Barbarity” — but (each said) he’d been there urging all his accomplices to come away and not steal all the pewter. Each carried that eye-rolling story from trial to gallows.

Chaplin was about 27; his father had tried to teach him his trade of “Ribband-weaving” which suggests (as does his surname) that his family might have been among the Huguenot weavers who escaped France’s religious crackdown decades before. He must have been a restless sort, for instead of sweltering over a loom he joined the army around age 15, perhaps about the right timing to put down the Jacobites, and afterwards basically went adrift in London’s criminal substratum. There he led “a very vicious Life … much addicted to Drinking, Swearing, and Whoring.”

His companion in the Lyver home and at the triple tree was Peter Boother, “about 21 Years of Age, descended of honest but very poor Parents, about 14 Miles from this Town his Father having been a mean Labourer in the Country.” The Ordinary does not give us a clear picture of Boother’s path into the felonious way of life, merely that he was young, penniless, and completely uneducated; combined with Boother’s tearful susceptibility to the Ordinary’s preaching, it suggests an impressionable youth, malleable to the forces around him which happened to be those of vicious want. (Chaplin, the Ordinary noticed, “appear’d to be a Man of more Resolution than his Companion, being more compos’d and settled in his Behaviour.”)

* Defoe had a few thoughts on the death penalty, too.