1791: Whiting Sweeting, who slew the first U.S. cop to die in the line of duty

Add comment August 26th, 2016 Headsman

In a drama of curious names, Albany, New York hanged a gentleman named Whiting Sweeting on this date in 1791. He had slain Darius Quimby in the first recorded killing of a U.S. law enforcement officer in the line of duty.

Showing that needlessly aggressive police tactics are no modern innovation, Quimby put himself in harm’s way by doing the post-colonial equivalent of a no-knock raid.

He was not a regular policeman, but was deputized as part of a small ad hoc posse who attempted to arrest Sweeting on January 3 of that year on a warrant for possessing a stolen kettle.* Because 18th century, the bunch pregamed en route to the encounter by stopping to throw back some rum with buddies; at last arriving at Sweeting’s house in the evening they discovered the man absent and so followed his snowbound footprints into a dark wood.

This Cornell library page preserves several similar versions of original 1791 pamphlets about the case, which consist heavily of Sweeting’s own erudite writings. The testimony of the other constables themselves unanimously agrees that when they found Whiting they started yelling at him to surrender but never announced themselves as officers of the law conducting a legal arrest.

So to sum up, a howling drunken gang surprised Sweeting in an unlit wood, and he for some unaccountable reason resisted them. Brandishing a knife, he vowed to kill anyone who touched him. An empty threat, he would later claim, for he could perceive that he was completely outnumbered — but they would soon be words he would have preferred to take back.

As his pursuers closed in, Sweeting leaped from or was knocked off a rock where he’d been cornered — attempting to flee towards a nearby road, he said — and careened headlong into Quimby, with whom he grappled in the snow as the remainder of the posse piled on him. By the end of it, Quimby had a mortal wound from Sweeting’s knife. Say, didn’t you just threaten to do exactly that?

One might well look askance at Sweeting’s claim that Quimby conveniently fell on the knife that he was clutching as the two tussled; it would probably stand more consistent with the rest of his story had he fought back desperately believing he was being attacked or robbed. One of the arresting party claimed to have perceived, in the moonlit melee, Sweeting making a stabbing motion, an observation that led Sweeting in the commentary remarks he published about the trial to declaim against the shoddy and provocative performance of John Law in terms that would stand up awfully well for many a present-day encounter. Noting that the other posse members who appeared against him were self-interested to vindicate their own rum-buzzed behavior, they had dubiously claimed to have clearly seen and heard events “in a dark night, at some distance, in a hurry, pursuing a man, in a deep snow.”

I think it was said in court, I flew upon Quimby, tho’ it has been said by them he was upon me. If then they saw the arm of the uppermost man move, it was not mine. If they saw either move it must be difficult, if not impossible to determine which … considering we were both buried in the depth of the snow.

Would it not have deserved a moment’s thought whether a party of men having a lawful warrant and though cloathed with the authority of law, getting drunk and committing a riot, ought not to leave a doubt on the mind whether full faith and credit ought to be placed upon their testimony in a cause of life and death … Is it the common practice of a constable to collect such a number, to execute a trifling warrant — to come in such a riotous manner, with an intention to break doors, to take a man prisoner dead or alive?

If this is law, yet it must leave a suspicion, that those persons when called as witnesses respecting their own transaction, do not feel that coolness and calmness which witnesses ever ought to feel in matters of such importance.

Maybe this apt critique got someone chewed out behind closed doors, but it didn’t acquit him with the jury.

Sweeting did earn some public sympathy via a show of conspicuous piety and forgiveness in the weeks leading up to his execution. His remarks from jail dwell mostly on Scripture; while he insisted on his innocence to the last, the printed artifacts left for us evince little bitterness. According to a correspondent’s “Letter from Niagara” that circulated in the young states’ papers, the hanging took place “in the presence of a vast concourse of people” whom Sweeting exhorted “to avoid sin, and to take warning by him whose end was a consequent thereof, and strongly recommended obedience to magistrates, a disobedience of whom was a breach of the law of God … then addressed himself to the throne of grace in an admirable well-adapted prayer, which closed with ‘Jesus receive my spirit.'” (Vermont Gazette, September 5, 1791)

* Whiting would say to the very end that the kettle was not stolen.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

Tags: , , , , , ,


Calendar

September 2019
M T W T F S S
« Aug    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!