1719: Lt. Edward Bird, ungentlemanly

Add comment February 23rd, 2019 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, a bad-tempered brute called Lieutenant Edward Bird found he could not buy his way out of a noose.

This man’s journey to the halter began in a bagnio, where he was supposed to be relaxing but instead threw such a fit over the servants’ delay in drawing a bath that the master and mistress of the house were roused in the middle of the night to quell him — for (per the trial record) “I have seve[ral] of consideration in my House” being perturbed by the racket. To this Lt. Bird replied by immediately running servant Samuel Loxton through with his sword, killing him instantly; it’s a good job that the owners were both there together, along with another servant, for all were needed to subdue the guest as he ranted threats to murder all the rest of them. At least, that was their evidence against him; Bird’s story was that they attacked him first, and he had dispatched poor Mr. Loxton in self-defense.

At the time, ordinary criminal prosecutions were privately initiated, and so it fell to the servant’s poor widow Diana to bring the case against Edward Bird.

Although not of high estate, Bird had the werewithal to make himself less accessible to Diana Loxton’s justice than the average footpad or highwayman — first using actual or feigned illness to slow-walk his arraignment from October of 1718 to January of 1719, then calling to his defense “several Persons of Credit and Worth” who attested “his Reputation and peaceable demeanour, [and] who gave him a very good Character.”

Despite his condemnation he must have called on these same reserves of social capital liberally in the subsequent five weeks, for that diligent Ordinary of Newgate named Paul Lorrain was exasperated to find that he could barely get a word in edgewise so preoccupied was his charge with his more corporeal affairs:

I found him always so busie, sometimes in Writing, and at other times with Company, that I could hardly have any Opportunity to speak to him of his Future State. Nevertheless I endeavour’d to prepare him for his great Change, and for a better Life, by perswading him sincerely to repent of all the Sins he had committed in this, and earnestly to pray for GOD’s Pardon and Mercy, through the infinite Merits of CHRIST: Which if he did not now he had time; for it, I desir’d him seriously to consider what might become of him to all Eternity. To this he seem’d to give a little Attention; but something coming into his Mind which he said he must do presently, he desir’d me to leave him; saying, he would send for me another time, when he was at leisure. Accordingly he did, but when I came to him, I found he had not sent for me to pray by him, or discourse him about Divine Matters, but only to shew me the Draught of a Paper which he said he had prepar’d by the help of a Friend, and which he intended to publish. Upon this, after I had (as he desir’d I should) read it, I told him plainly, that the Drift of that Paper, being to insinuate he had not Justice done him at his Trial, he must not think that the World would believe him to be (as he endeavour’d to appear) innocent of the Murder he Was condemn’d for.

Bird did indeed publish such a document. His potentially most compelling juridical claim was one that would strike the modern reader as an utter irrelevancy, but that went to the heart of system of private prosecutions: Bird argued that Samuel Loxton was a bigamist and thus Diana Loxton nee Seedwell as his second wife had no standing to harry him in the courts. This of course entailed besmirching the reputation of the victim and his surviving family and in-laws; with his life on the line, Bird was bold enough to put out payola for dirt on the Loxtons, and even to feel out Diana Loxton herself for the price of her cooperation.* Call it a bit of blood money, payment to be rendered in guineas for reputation.

It’s hard to gauge how much traction this appeal ever gained with the elites in a position to spare Bird’s life. Surely with a more pliable prosecutor he might have had a hand to play: to his grief, he discovered that Diana Loxton was a foe whose tenacity ran quite a bit deeper than his purse.

The London Saturday’s Post reported on February 21 that the incensed widow “presented a petition to his Majesty when he came from Chappel, setting forth the many Difficulties which she laboured under to bring the said Lieutenant to Justice; His Majesty, moved at her just Complaint, ordered a Cabinet Council to meet the next Day, and the Deputy Recorder of London to attend, in order to re-examine the Matter; when the Board, shocked at the wicked Artifices that had been made use of to obstruct the Course of Justice, his Majesty … was pleased to order a Warrant to be made out for the Execution of the said Criminal on Monday next at Tyburn.”

Bird fought his losing corner to the end, even resorting to poisoning and stabbing himself on the eve of his hanging in an attempt to cheat the gallows. All was for naught.

Carried to Tyburn in a comfortable mourning coach where he tarried an hour with his mother (plus three other, all of whom, says Lorrain, “could work no Good on him”), Bird one last time “inveigh’d against Diana Loxton, saying, that if he had time, he could prove she was the second Wife of the Deceas’d, and therefore had no Right to bring an Appeal. He ask’d for a Glass of Wine at the Tree, and being told there was none, he desired a Pinch of Snuff, which was given him.” (London Post Boy, Feb. 21-24, 1719) Then with a salute to the health of his gathered gentlemen friends, who would within the hour claim his body to protect it from the scalpels of ravenous doctors, Lt. Bird was noosed up and turned off, dragged down by the weight of all those unspent gratuities still a-pocket.

* e.g., Powell’s Weekly Journal, Feb. 14-21 1719, speaking of the widow’s outraged reaction to “an Account of that Trial come out, seemingly calculated for the Advantage of the Criminal, and with all the Disadvantages on the side of the Prosecution, by the means of a Printer, who, it is to be feared, did not shut his Eyes against Bribes, as she has done.” She insists against any public suspicion of “being privy to any Intercession that is said to be making in Favour of the Murtherer of her deceased Husband, and to giv[ing] Ear to any Terms of Accommodation with the hateful Cause of his Death, by way of Premium and Reward, in Exchange for his Blood” for these “are Actions so abhorrent to her Nature and unalterable Affection for his dear Memory, as not to be passed by without the utmost Protestations of her Innocence … she has Knowledge of some Application intended to be made to her for putting a Stop to the Prosecution of the Lieutenant before Trial; and a Relation can bear her Witness, that she was offered 100 Guineas to make interest with her to take 2000 l. for that End”; likewise another servant, Loxton claims, turned down “a considerable yearly Estate to be settled upon him and his Children for ever” and instead testified against Lt. Bird, while a charwoman in the Loxton house was offered and refused 40 quid for “swearing any thing scandalous relating to the said House.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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