1691: William Macqueen, the Irish Teague

Add comment May 1st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1691, 11 hanged publicly at Tyburn.

From the Ordinary’s Account they make a fairly typical, if voluminous, assortment: an infanticide, a drunken murderer, and thieves and highwaymen of various descriptions.

Two of these rude knights of the road were “William Selwood alias Jenkins, condemned with William Mackquean a Papist,” the latter also called “Bayley, alias the Irish Teague.” Condemned for robbery on the road, Macqueen confessed to having previously murdered a soldier in a similar encounter; they were “Old Offenders” who had previously “been Reprieved, but would not take warning.”

For the veteran robber Macqueen we have a fine instance of the facts-be-damned mythmaking characteristic of the early Newgate Calendar: his entry credits him with stealing the mace of the Lord Chancellor, an outrageous caper that different criminals really did pull off many years before. Not accidentally, our rewrite version from the Whig ascendancy also edits the identity of the Lord Chancellor involved, who perforce must seem ridiculous to have lost the emblem of his station in this manner — replacing the true victim, the moderate and forgettable Earl of Nottingham, with that hated late-Stuart bete noir (and notorious hanging judge), Lord Jeffreys.

The implicit parable of the Glorious Revolution is reinforced by what must surely be a fanciful vignette in which Macqueen mugs the Lady Auverquerque, the wife of one of the Dutch commanders who invaded England with William of Orange in 1688. Both parties involved are foreigners on English soil, and their awkwardness in that most naked transaction of gunpoint robbery has comedic effect. Presented with a confusingly veiled demand for a “loan,” the mistress seeks clarification: “I believe you had as good tell me at once you are come to rob me; for this is an odd way of borrowing.” Macqueen/Teague apologizes and manages crudely but effectively to the convey the point: “I am a stranger in this country, and so if I don’t know the difference between robbing and borrowing, you must excuse me; for all I mean is, to have your money.”

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1691: Mark Baggot, Jacobite spy

Add comment May 20th, 2016 Headsman

On May 20, 1691, Captain Mark Baggot was hanged as a spy in Dublin.

Baggot had maintained loyalty to King James II when that sovereign was deposed in the 1688 Glorious Revolution that elevated William of Orange to the English throne.

Though deeply unpopular in England, the Catholic James — still to this day England’s last Catholic monarch — had sympathetic subjects to flee to in Ireland. Apart from the religious sympatico, the Irish were still smarting from ravages dating back to Cromwell and before, authored in the main by factions who were direct ancestors of the Whigs, King James’s staunchest domestic foes.

In 1689, James landed in Ireland backed by the French and kicked off the Williamite-Jacobite War between the rival kings. This war was so nasty it even survived the flight of King James himself in 1690:* William refused to guarantee amnesty for a wide swath of the Jacobite leadership, who consequently saw no odds in laying down their weapons.

The latter months of 1690 and the early months of 1691 had the now-outnumbered Jacobites girding the defenses of the cities they held against the coming Williamite attacks that were sure to come. Intelligence was critical under such conditions, and here our man Mark Baggot enters the stage.

Baggot was dispatched from the Jacobite stronghold of Limerick to Williamite-held Dublin to scout the enemy, but there had the embarrassment of being captured trying to escape notice in women’s clothes.** (You may be certain that the Williamite press included this emasculating detail on every available occasion.)

A court-martial condemned Baggot to hang the very next day, March 25.†

But the secret agent bought himself two months’ respite by cooperating with his captors — making the whole mission a clear intelligence win for the Williamites, especially since they still got to hang their spy in the end.

The resulting document has copy nearly as long as its unwieldy title …

The Discovery Made by Captain Mark Baggot, the Person Lately Taken in Womans Clothes, Coming from Limerick to Dublin, where He was Apprehended, and Tried as a Spy, by a Court-Martial ... at which He Received Sentence of Death: But Upon this Confession, Execution was Respited.

That the Irish army consists of forty thousand men of all sorts; that Tyrconnel was reducing them to thirty thousand; but Sarsfield

That Tyrconnel and Sir Richard Nagle are pensioners of France.

That there is no good understanding between Tyrconnel and Sarsfield, having great jealousies of one another.

That King James has correspondence with, and intelligence from some persons in considerable places of trust here in England every ten days.

That the French fleet is hourly expected with thirty pieces of cannon, ammunition, provisions and arms; a French general, some marine men, but none of the army; they resolve to maintain their greatest force against the confederates in Flanders next campaign.

That the Irish army intends to move towards the frontiers, their greatest design being against Cork more than ny other place; what is left of the suburbs they intend to burn; they expect a great many deserters at their approach to the town. The commanders of the parties for this service are Colonel Dorrington and Colonel Clifford.

A spy, taken at Limerick, was hang’d here [Dublin], and confess’d that Major Corket was in particular favour, and held correspondence with the English, who was carried prisoner to Limerick, and suppos’d to have suffer’d death.

That the contributions paid to the new Irish are one peck of wheat or meal, 12 pound of butter every fortnight out of each plow lands.

That there is express order that no guns be removed from Limerick; that the English deserters are only paid and encouraged, but no pay given to the Irish.

That they are still fortifying Limerick.

That Ballyclough and Castletown, with some other places, were to be made garrisons by the Irish; that Sir Michael Creagh’s regiment of foot, under command of Colonel Lacy, are at Ballyclough, which places they are fortifying; that Strabane’s regiment of horse are at Charleveel and Buttifant, &c.

Baggot’s less than flattering report of the Jacobite forces’ condition proved bang-on: that July, the Williamites dealt a fatal blow to the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Aughrim — thanks to forcing a defile that the dug-in Jacobites ought to have held but for want of ammunition.‡ Shortly thereafter, Limerick capitulated to Williamite siege — its last Jacobite garrison escaping into exile, never to stir in Ireland again.

* He’s remembered in Ireland as “James the Shit” (Seamus a Chaca) because he ditched his supporters mid-war.

** Not the only Jacobite with a cross-dressing escapade to his name.

London Gazette, March 26-30, 1691, which calls the spy Baggot “a Person very well known.”

The Baggot(t)s (Bagods, Baggetts) were an English family that could trace lineage back to the age of William the Conqueror, with a very longstanding branch in Ireland. (Dublin still has streets that bear that name.) The 17th century Irish Baggots took it on the chin for their loyalty to the Stuarts, several dying in that service or being dispossessed. The family’s Baggotstown Castle in County Limerick was seized and razed by the Williamites months after the events in this post.

The date of Baggot’s execution is reported in the Gazette for May 25-28, 1691.

‡ “All the day, though he was sincking in his center and on his left, [the Williamites] yett durst not once, for his relief, attempt to traverse the cawsway, till despayr at the end compelled him to trye that experiment at all hazards … they confidently ventured to goe through, notwithstanding the fire from the castle on their right, which fire was insignificant; for it slew but a few in the passage. The reason of it was given, because the men had French pieces, the bore of which was small, and had English ball, which was too large. Here is a new miscarriage thro’ heedlessness. Why was not this foreseen and the dammage prevented?” (Source)

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1688: James Renwick, to end the Killing Time

Add comment February 17th, 2016 Headsman

Though none of the crowd that thronged Edinburgh’s Grassmarket this day in 1688 could know it, that date’s execution of minister James Renwick would make an end to the Killing Time, the great 1680s persecutions that scattered martyrs’ bones across Highland and Lowland.

Renwick, at any rate, was the last of many Covenanters who submitted to the public executioner; only a few months yet remained when officers in the field were empowered to force an oath of abjuration upon suspected dissidents, on pain of summary death in the field. By year’s end, the absolutist Catholic King James II — with whose brother and predecessor the movement had such a tortured history — fled to exile as the Glorious Revolution brought the Protestant William of Orange to power: royal recognition of Scottish Presbyterianism ensued.*


Monument to Renwick at his native Moniaive. (cc) image by Scott Hill.

The son of a village weaver, Renwick manifested a martyr’s uncommon zeal for the faith early in life and matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. There in 1681 he witnessed the hanging of Covenanter preacher Donald Cargill. Here, muses the hagiography, “the mantle of Elijah fell upon young Elisha.”

After studying — and ordination — abroad in the Netherlands Renwick returned to his native soil in 1683. He managed some five years of secret ministering in hidden homes and conventicles, and all the while the law sought him ever closer. By the time it finally hunted him to ground in 1688, so many of the faith’s august champions had already taken their martyrs’ crowns that at age 25** Renwick was among the biggest game remaining.

How often cowled on ghostly moors by torchlight had the young reverend rehearsed the steadfast refusal he might one day deliver to his persecutors? Had he prayed that the weakness of flesh would not betray his spirit with an unbecoming attachment to his own life? “I cannot own this usurper as the lawful king, seeing both by the word of God such an one is incapable to bear rule, and likewise by the ancient laws of the kingdom which admit none to the crown of Scotland until he swear to defend the Protestant religion, which a man of his profession cannot do,” he declared to his captors when pressed for the formula of abjuration.

Renwick passed this test but little could even he have imagined how speedily would be fulfilled his gallows prayer:

Lord, I die in the faith that Thou wilt not leave Scotland, but that Thou wilt make the blood of Thy witnesses the seed of Thy church, and return again and be glorious in our land. And now, Lord, I am ready.


Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh. Artist unknown. (Source)

James Renwick has enjoyed tender biographical treatment from posterity; see here and here for some longer-form examples.

* While good news for the Presbyterians, this put many an Episcopal and Catholic in a tight spot of their own, setting up decades of bloody tragedy for Jacobite loyalists … but this is a subject for other posts.

** The captain who finally caught Renwick is supposed to have exclaimed at seeing his youth, “Is this the boy Renwick that the nation has been so much troubled with?” The outlaw minister turned 26 two days before his execution.

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1697: John Fenwick, bitter

2 comments January 28th, 2012 Headsman

The Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s lifted to power the young stadtholder William of Orange, and made him a couple of noteworthy lifelong enemies.

One was the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose decades-long rivalry with William tracked William’s interesting career all the way to the throne of England.

William III, equestrian. Consider yourself foreshadowed.

Another was Sir John Fenwick, an English nobleman whom William supposedly slagged* when they were fighting together in the Low Countries — and who likewise still carried the enmity when William had become his sovereign.

On this date in 1697, the latter rivalry came to a fatal end for John Fenwick on the headsman’s block. The funny thing was that the stroke turned out to cost King William III his own life as well.

You couldn’t say that Fenwick came late to the Jacobite cause; he’d been a strong adherent of the beleaguered Catholic-esque Stuart dynasty, and signed off on the 1685 execution of its previous Protestant challenger Monmouth.

But if it prosper, none dare call it treason. In 1688, the Low Countries prince with the low estimation of Baronet Fenwick hopped the channel and successfully overthrew the last Stuart monarchking James II.

With the Glorious Revolution, Fenwick’s personal and political were very conveniently aligned in loyalty to the exiled James … except that his formerly patriotic loyalty to James was now the traitorous cause of Jacobitism.

Fenwick kept up his Jacobiting in the 1690s, got arrested and released once, and then finally found himself implicated in a plot to murder William. Though his allies managed to spirit one of the potential witnesses against him away to the continent, Parliament passed — ever so narrowly — a bill of attainder to condemn Fenwick to death. (There’s a more detailed account of the legal and political maneuverings here and here.)

The State his Head did from his Body sever,
Because when living ’twas his chief Endeavour
To set the Nation and its Head together.

That’s politics. Even kings themselves are in mortal peril around here.

A failed assassin in life, Fenwick would blunder Gavrilo Princip-like into accidental success … but only after his own execution.

As a condemned traitor, Fenwick’s estate was seized by the crown, and the king personally claimed his prey’s equine ride (either a horse with a sorrel coat, or a horse named Sorrel, or both).** Not long after Fenwick’s death, this horse stumbled on a molehill, throwing its royal rider. William broke his collarbone in the accident, developed pneumonia, and died — leading Jacobite sympathizers to dote on the animals (both horse and mole) who had authored their enemy’s misfortune.

Illustrious steed, doubtless most worthy of the sky,
To whom the lion, bull, and bear would give place;
What happy meadows bore thee happily?
What happy mother gave you her nutritious teats?
Is it from the land of Erin you are come to oblige your country,
Or is it Glenco or the Fenwick race which produced you?
Whoever thou art, mayst thou prosper, I pray memorable one: and
May saddle never more press thy back, nor bit thy mouth.
Avenger of the human race, when the tyrant dies,
Mayst thou thyself enjoy the liberty thou wilt give to others.


A lovely sorrel enjoys the liberty of a happy meadow. (Nutritious teats not pictured.) (cc) image from SMALLORBIGOFMEN.

* During the Dutch campaign, William “had reflected very severely upon his [Fenwick’s] courage, which occasioned his making returns that provoked the Prince to say, that if he had been a private person he must have cut Sir John’s throat.” Just your basic primate poo-flinging.

** Leaving aside his ultimate fate, quite an understandable move by William: the Fenwicks were famous for their horse husbandry.

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1691: Jacob Leisler, “a Walloon who has sett at the head of the Rable”

Add comment May 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1691, Jacob Leisler was executed in New York, a New World casualty of the Glorious Revolution back in the mother country.

In an era when transatlantic communication moved at the speed of a galleon, the 1688 overthrow of England’s Stuart monarchy initiated an agonizing period of political uncertainty in Albion’s far-flung American provinces.

And to the question of who was really in charge were appended the many local political issues of the colonies — religious, economic, political.

One of the empire’s dominant fault political fault lines in the foregoing years had been the succession to follow England’s last Catholic monarch, James II. For Calvinists whose dynastic champion was the House of Orange, the marriage of their guy William III to James’s daughter raised the prospect of an eventual claim on the English throne. Those hopes seemed dashed when James fathered a son, to the elation of Catholics who now aspired to a lasting Catholic line.

When word reached New York, still a majority-Dutch city thanks to its original mother country, of the ascent of that their countryman William III and England’s Protestant establishment had forcibly disinherited the infant prince and his dad, it did not take long for local Dutch factions to run off the former King James’s plenipotentiaries. (An irony, since New York was named for that very same now-deposed King James: he’d been the Duke of York when it was seized for the Dutch in the 1660s.)

That ex-monarch’s brief reign had seen the establishment of a much-resented Dominion of New England, welding together everything from New Jersey to Maine into a super-colony whose high-handed boss was arrested by a Boston mob. (He sailed for England.) That gentleman’s lieutenant, in New York, likewise absconded as his own authority crumbled … a sort of American Glorious Revolution shadowing the one across the pond.

The Frankfurt-born Leisler was a colonial mercantile magnate, one of the 17th century’s wealthiest New Yorkers, notable for his Orangist sympathies and Calvinist religious inclination. It was to this important private citizen (who was also a militia captain) that de facto executive power fell in the New York colony — and it was indeed the New York colony specifically, since the reassertion of local prerogatives and pre-1685 administrative units had been one of the immediate consequences of the shakeout in America.


Statue of Jacob Leisler in New Rochelle, N.Y. — which Leisler helped create as a settlement for refugee Huguenots.

And once in the saddle, the Dutch Calvinist Leisler essentially ran a populist administration against the colonial oligarchy, which replied by vilifying him as a “usurper” and “rebel”.

Internal politics in New York and its neighbors during those months make fascinating reading.* Quakers and Catholics aligned against Protestants. Albany aligned against New York, until Leisler brought the former to heel. Clergy chose up sides. Leisler summoned a sort of proto-continental congress of colonial representatives (all the way to the West Indies) to hash out their situation.

And what was that situation? There had been a revolution, after all, and there was no agreed-upon representative of the royal authority present in New York. An assembly of militia leaders had asked Leisler to assume leadership, so was he really outside his rights to treat as his the London dispatches addressed to “such as, for the time being, take care for preserving the public peace and administering the law in New York”?

It’s a moment whose ferment of democratic energy can be read to presage the next century’s (proper) revolution.

Yet it was also not a revolution in the Cromwellian, world-turned-upside-down sense. For the English polity, and certainly for the conduct it preferred in its frontier possessions, continuity was the order of the day. Even in England herself, William and Mary were more than pleased to govern with Tories who could see their way to releasing their fealty to the Stuarts.

There was an empire to run, after all.

From that standpoint, Leisler’s anti-oligarchical policies and fractious disputes with other colonial elites were a bad business. There’s no sense in letting France make inroads because your governors are bickering over predestination or some such.

So formally, the realm’s new rulers continued all non-Catholic personnel in their posts. With the Dominion governors ejected, it was just a matter of dispatching fresh executives to take over. It’s just that this process required months … during which Leisler was managing New York the way he figured it ought to be managed, and his enemies were consequently painting him as a rebel.

Leisler pronounced himself, this whole time, anxious to submit his authority to the new governor upon the production of proper credentials. If he was surprised that the new monarchs tendered appointees of the very same factions recently expelled,** Leisler showed it only in his exactitude for procedure: because of a logistical cock-up, an aide to the new colonial governor arrived first, and when Leisler refused to hand over his fort without the royal warrant, a tense standoff ensued. It was resolved when the real governor, Henry Sloughter of ominous name, finally showed up.

Sloughter had his “predecessor” immediately arrested, along with others of his circle and harshly tried for treason and murder by a court stacked with anti-Leisler political enemies.†

Ultimately Leisler was condemned to die along with his secretary and son-in-law Jacob Milborne, but even Sloughter was loath to enforce the sentence. The story goes that Leisler’s most implacable foes had to get Sloughter drunk to put his signature on the death-warrant. (Sloughter died a couple of months later himself, for maximum operatic effect.)

On Saturday morning, May 16, 1691, the largest crowd ever gathered in New York City stood, rain soaked and weeping, all eyes fixed as a limp body was cut from the gallows and placed on the block. With a clean blow, the executioner’s ax cut off the head of the “halfe dead” Jacob Leisler — loyal lieutenant governor or rebel tyrant, depending on one’s point of view. Amid the “shrieks of the people,” fainting women (some “taken in labour”), and tumultuous jostling for “pieces of his garments” and strands of his hair, as “for a martyr,” the newly arrived and unfortunately named royal governor, Henry Sloughter, worried that his decision to execute Leisler might not, after all, end the “diseases and troubles of this Government.” Indeed, for years afterward New Yorkers bitterly divided over Leisler and the 1689 uprising that, in the wake of England’s Glorious Revolution, had led to his assumption of power in the provincial government.

-David Voorhees, who elsewhere contends that these divisions “continue to inform American politics to the present day.”*

A few years later, a more Leisler-friendly Parliament restored the dead man’s estate to his heirs, a sort of implicit admission that the whole head-chopping thing might have been a bit much.

This character figures to bear more historical consideration than he has heretofore enjoyed; further to that end, there’s a Jacob Leisler Papers Project devoted to marshaling at New York University the primary documents connected with Leisler.

* See, for instance, David Voorhees in “‘to assert our Right before it be quite lost': The Leisler Rebellion in the Delaware River Valley” in Pennsylvania History, Winter 1997 — and, Voorhees again in “The ‘fervent Zeale’ of Jacob Leisler,” The William and Mary Quarterly, July 1994.

** Literally so: Francis Nicholson, whom Leisler ousted from New York, tried to get himself appointed governor; he was instead sent to Virginia and continued in royal service in the colonies for decades to come.

† e.g., Joseph Dudley, one of Leisler’s judges, whose penchant for authoritarian justice has been noted elsewhere in these pages.

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1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey

21 comments March 22nd, 2009 Thomas Levenson

(Thanks to Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog. Prof. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and author of the forthcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter.)

Early in the morning of March 22, 1699, William Chaloner raged.

Chaloner, a convicted coiner, refused the Newgate Jail Chaplain’s plea to show proper penitence, shouting with “more Passion than Piety,” of his wronged state and unmerited destination (according to his anonymous biographer in the one surviving account of his life). In time, he calmed sufficiently to accept the sacrament, and so proceeded to the execution convoy to be borne from Newgate to the hanging tree at Tyburn (now Marble Arch, just to the west of the old City of London).

There Chaloner’s fury mounted again, and he shouted to the crowd, drawn as always to the spectacle of public hanging days, that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law.” He mounted the ladder to the top of Tyburn’s gibbet. He prayed, and then pulled the hood over his eyes without aid. When the moment came, the executioner’s men pulled the ladder out of the way and Chaloner dangled, twitching and jumping (the “hangman’s dance”) as long as it took –- minutes, at least — for life to choke out of him. Richer men often paid the hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.

The investigator who had sent Chaloner to the noose was not present; or at least nowhere in his copious notes and letters did he admit to curiosity about the fate of a man whose pursuit occupied him for almost three years. The Warden of His Majesty’s Mint had more pressing duties to perform, and so Isaac Newton allowed the date of Chaloner’s death to pass unmarked.

Isaac Newton? That Newton?


Appropriately, Newton himself wound up on the currency.

The accidents of place and time that brought the man who was recognized in his own day as the greatest mind of the age into conflict with Chaloner, an uncommonly gifted common criminal have fascinated me since I first learned of them through reading Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to the implacable Newton, written days before the hanging. In it Chaloner begged, writing “O dear S[i]r nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me.”

What I wanted to answer was the obvious question: how and why did Isaac Newton come to pass judgment on the life of any other man? I had always thought of him as the nearly cloistered scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, his home for more than thirty years. It was there he performed the experiments and the calculations that led him, in 1687, to write his masterwork, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy — better known simply as the Principia -– as well as pursuing his decades-long program of alchemical research.

So how, I wondered, did he end up in London, wallowing in the muck with the capital’s criminal underground?

Not to put too fine a point on it, finding out has turned into a book Newton and the Counterfeiter, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and scheduled for release on June 4. But, to anticipate that longer story, here is the gist: Newton, after Principia found himself an international celebrity, and, as one of Cambridge University’s representatives to the Convention Parliament of 1689 that legitimized William of Orange‘s seizure of the English throne from the deposed Stuart King James II, he had nearly a year to enjoy the acclaim of London and Europe’s thinking and political elites before returning to the quiet of Cambridge, then a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants. It was an intellectual backwater too, especially compared to the big city in which he encountered figures like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke (whom he despised), Samuel Pepys (whom he did not) and so on. So he started, with Locke’s help, to seek a patronage appointment that would allow him to live comfortably in London. It took six years to find the right one, but ultimately he was offered the Warden’s post at the Mint. That job was supposed to be a sinecure, a nearly no-show position that would pay him a very comfortable wage.

And so it would have turned out were it not for the terribly debased state of England’s silver coinage, which had deteriorated to about half its legal weight for a whole host of reasons. So Newton arrived at a time when (a) the Mint was attempting to recall and recoin the entire stock of silver money for the entire country –- all the smaller units of money essential to everyday transactions –- and (b) coining, counterfeiting, was flourishing as enterprising men and women set out to get rich by filling in the gaps in the money supply with coins that never felt the stamp of an official Mint die. As Warden, it became Newton’s duty to see that legal money was produced fast and fairly, and to pursue all those who set up on their own.

Of those who did none were more technically skilled or ambitious than William Chaloner. His is a fascinating story, told at much greater length in my book, in which you see the currents of rapid economic change, class and ambition all converge within this one, barely remembered life. He was born desperate poor, a weaver’s son in Lincolnshire. He ran from his first apprenticeship to London, where he started out at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking porn on street corners. He rose rapidly, first with his clearly impressive gift of gab, and then, after falling in with someone who knew how to gild surfaces, as the central figure in a series of ever grander schemes to counterfeit gold and silver money. He had sidelines as an informer, betraying conspiracies that he would himself set up, but his central gift and fascination was in the creation of fakes. Ultimately, he was one of the first to recognize the power of paper, and he started to counterfeit a variety of the early experiments with paper money and bank instruments.

In this sense Chaloner’s career –- and Newton’s urgent pursuit of him –- offer a window into the birth of the modern idea of money, of finance. And one of the things that fascinated me about this case is the degree to which this old story tracks some of our immediate problems. England’s and Europe’s economies were in rapid revolution in the late seventeenth century. The old idea of money as a chunk of metal with a pretty picture on it could no longer come close to accommodating the kind of enterprises governments and individuals wanted to undertake, from war to the funding of global webs of trade. And so people came up with all kinds of different ways of trying to represent value and exchange and even the idea of the changing worth of an investment over time. And the people making these experiments did not fully understand the implications of each expedient they tried. The last piece of paper Chaloner counterfeited was called a Malt Lottery Ticket, and it was at once simply paper money, a bond, and a gamble. Traders attempted to value these kinds of things in embryonic financial markets -– which would in a couple of decades blow up in a financial collapse that possess some striking similarities to our current predicament. Newton himself would lose a considerable fortune in that collapse, a sum worth a couple of million pounds, maybe more, in 21st century money.

It was that sense of precariousness that made the pursuit of counterfeiters so urgent in the midst of the late 17th century; England’s money supply was genuinely at risk, and no one had a good grasp of what it would take to make both the daily experience of small transactions and the high finance of war and trade go smoothly. So anyone threatening either or both levels of money was public enemy number one.

Of those who tried their hand at currency crime, Chaloner was the most accomplished, and notorious. By his own admission he counterfeited on the order of 30,000 pounds worth of currency over a seven- or eight-year career, an enormous fortune for the day. His big mistake, though, was to challenge Newton directly, accusing him in public of incompetence or fraud in his management of the recoinage of silver money between 1696 and 1698. He laid that charge both in testimony to Parliament and in a pamphlet he had printed for public distribution, and the scandal could genuinely have wounded Newton, were it not for the influence of his friends in power in Parliament at the moment.

It was enough, certainly, to propel Newton into an extraordinary investigation, an exercise of what may be seen as true non-fiction scientific detection. He set up a net of agents and informers throughout the worst neighborhoods and pubs in London, tracking any instance of coining he could find, interrogating suspects at the Tower or in jail, trying to build a web of connections around Chaloner. That story is contained within a collection of several hundred depositions and summaries of interrogations, all signed by Newton, that have survived, largely unexamined until now. Those records show that it took Newton almost two years in all, but aided in the end by listeners whose lives he held at his disposal inside Chaloner’s cell at Newgate, he managed to collect a sufficient weight of testimony to ensure that he could convict a prisoner clever enough to have escaped several previous attempts at prosecution.

The trial itself was something of a sham. Chaloner had feared being charged on the Malt Lottery Ticket forgery, (as we know from the accounts in Newton’s files of informers in the cells) but Newton actually presented evidence of a coining spree that almost certainly did not take place as described. Among other confounding facts, Chaloner was supposed to have made six different denominations of both silver and gold coins in a single day, which would have involved an enormous confusion of tools and materials that ran counter to basic counterfeiting practice.

No matter: the sheer volume of precise detail that Newton’s witnesses were able (or convinced) to provide produced a conviction within a very short time –- the whole trial took no more than an hour or so on March 3, 1699. There was a truncated appeal process -– really just a request for clemency from the crown, which was denied, and Chaloner’s sentence came down.

Formally, he had been found guilty of high treason, an assault upon the crown in the form of the king’s likeness and authority represented on the face of England’s coins. The punishment for high treason was essentially that suffered by William Wallace of Braveheart fame: to be strangled to the point of death, to be disemboweled whilst still living, to be beheaded and then quartered. By the date of Chaloner’s execution, the punishment had eased this far: convicted coiners were drawn to the place of execution on a rough sledge, subject to all the filth and abuse London’s open-sewered streets possessed; then hung until dead, and then, on rare occasions, to suffer post-mortem dismemberment. Chaloner himself was not, so far as any records revealed, actually cut into pieces. (As a gesture to public decency, women convicted of coining or other capital crimes were not supposed to be hung, lest their twitching at rope’s-end seem lewd. So they were burnt instead – though by the eighteenth century it was common to strangle them to death before lighting the pyre. Mercy, after the fashion of the times.)

Levenson lectures on his book at the MIT Writer’s Series.

One last note in a post gone much too long: Newton was involved in a number of counterfeiting investigations, and by some reckonings at least two dozen people went to their deaths as a result. Some historians, notably Frank Manuel, have speculated that Newton pursued this work with implausible eagerness, out of a kind of frustrated blood lust born of his abandoned and unhappy childhood.

This seems to me to be nonsense. The specific historical context matters here: Newton did not author the bloody code, nor did he send everyone he could to the gallows. Rather, the record of his depositions shows him to be simply a relentless practical man doing his job. He used little fish to catch big fish, and at least some of those low on the ladder received their escape from the gibbet. What you can see here, surprisingly, is the birth of a modern idea of a civil service. The Warden -– even Isaac Newton — was simply a man in a job doing the functions of that job, which included organizing the investigation and prosecution of counterfeiters.

What’s striking, of course, is that this civil servant, this bureaucrat, happened to possess the greatest scientific mind in history. And that’s the real sting in this tale. There is a connection between Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters and his attempts to understand nature. He did employ the same resources of concentration and logical organization in his criminal investigations that he did when he tackled any problem. But more than the commonality of work habits, there is, I think this link: Newton can be seen as many people: the mathematician, the theoretical physicist, the empirical experimentalist, the alchemical mystic, the heretically devout religious thinker –- and the government functionary too.

And yet he was, of course, a single man, one with many interests, but ultimately with a consistent ambition, to reduce to order the complexity of any problem which was posed to him. Newton did not expect as Warden to have to chase crooks; when he found out that was part of the job he wrote a rather whiny letter to the Treasury to see if he could wriggle out of the duty. When he found he could not, he responded as he always had to the job at hand.

As one consequence, on this day three hundred and ten years ago, William Chaloner died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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