1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird's hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

-Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Maine,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British

4 comments August 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Thomas Nash was hanged in Jamaica for the bloody mutiny on the HMS Hermione.


Before there was Hermione Granger, there was the HMS Hermione. Painting by Thomas Whitcombe.

The Admiralty’s most notorious mutiny this side of the Bounty was actually a far bloodier affair. Dig the description from one of the conspirators who later turned state’s evidence.

“The captain,” said he, “was very severe with the men, who were all good seamen, and they were determined to either run the ship on shore and desert, or else take her by force. This had been in their minds for months before it happened. At last,” said he, “on a dark night, when the young lieutenant had the watch, our minds were made up. A party went to the cabin-door, knocked down the sentry, and entered it. The captain was in his cot, and he was soon overpowered. We threw him out of the cabin-window. Another party threw the officer of the watch over the larboard quarter, but he, being young and active, caught hold of the hammock-stanchion, when one of the men cut his hands off, and he soon dropped astern. The first lieutenant had been ill and keeping his cot, but on hearing the noise, he came up the hatchway in his shirt, when one of the carpenter’s crew cut him down with an axe, and he was sent overboard with several others.”

(There’s a fine audio lecture about this mutiny in the context of maritime class violence at the Bristol Radical History Group, which reminds that in a context where most of a ship’s manpower was marshaled with the violence of involuntary conscription, mutiny bids were a regular feature of Old Blighty’s maritime empire. London Times archives are available from 1785, and searches on the word “mutiny” in those early years reveal dozens of episodes — and those were just the reported ones.)

After making sharkmeat of that tyrannical captain, 27-year-old Hugh Pigot, the Hermione mutineers got drunk, and then delivered the frigate to the Spanish.

A Royal Navy vessel aptly named the Surprise* was able to surprise the wayward warship and cut her out of the Venezuelan harbor Puerto Cabello. The Hermione was then aptly renamed the Retaliation (and later, Retribution). Then, the British put the ominous word into action with a global manhunt for the mutineers.

Nearly thirty men ultimately hanged for the affair, though that meant that most of those involved escaped the noose.

And Executed Today never** deals with the lucky ones.

Mind if I do a Jay?

And so we come at last to our day’s protagonist, one of the Hermione mutineers who was at length recognized in the breakaway former British colonies now constituting themselves the United States of America.

Upon catching this intelligence, British envoys demanded the extradition of this character — who now claimed to be an American citizen by the name of “Jonathan Robbins” — under the terms of the recent and controversial Jay Treaty. After several months under lock and key without any American charge against him, Robbins/Nash eventually had a habeas corpus hearing before Judge Thomas Bee, who decided† that this “American citizen” was no such thing. With an okay from the Adams administration, Bee had the man delivered to the crown.

Nash was immediately shipped down to the British colony of Jamaica, put on trial on Aug. 15 (he had no defense), and hanged on Aug. 19.

Little could the Waterford-born seaman imagine the legacy he bequeathed his fake-adopted country.

I know my rights, man

The Nash extradition became a political firestorm in the U.S., with anti-British Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans decrying the Federalist administration’s handling of the case. For the infant republic, formulating juridical precedent on the fly, this played as a separation-of-powers issue: was it within the president’s power to fulfill the treaty unilaterally, absent executing legislation passed by Congress? Was it within a judge’s purview to approve an extradition request without the constitutionally assured right to trial by jury?

Sounding eerily contemporary, New York Rep. Robert Livingston denounced a system whereby “a citizen of the United States might be dragged from his country, his connections and his friends, and subjected to the judgment of an unrelenting military tribunal.” Less measured, a Philadelphia Aurora headline announced: “BRITISH INFLUENCE threatens destruction of these United States!” (Source of both quotes)

Though it was surely not decisive, this issue provided great fodder in the 1800 elections swept by the Democratic-Republicans and standard-bearer Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s home state of

Virginia, the stronghold of inimical feeling to Great Britain … passed a law forbidding under heavy punishment a magistrate to be instrumental in extraditing any person out of the state. Thus desertions from British ships in a Virginian port became a regular event. Captains of British vessels sailing to United States ports in no long time would meet their men strolling in the streets, furnished with naturalization papers, who set them at defiance, for their arrest was impossible.

“This passage of history,” the otherwise hostile-to-Nash source is obliged to concede, “tells unfavourably on the character of the treatment of British seamen … the Discipline was harsh and oppressive, one of pure repression. The consideration of others, enforced by benevolence and duty, was often regarded as weakness.”

Hard to imagine why anyone would want to mutiny! It calls to mind, at the end of this passion play as at its start, the words supposed to have been hurled at the Hermione‘s doomed Captain Pigot as he pled with his assailants for mercy: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and therefore deserve none.”

A real reactionary

Despite the electoral slam dunk, the real last word on the case ultimately belonged to the administration’s defenders.

Among these rose in Congress a first-term — for he would only serve a single such term — member of the House of Representatives also from the Old Dominion, John Marshall.

Just months later, Marshall would be one of outgoing President Adams’s “midnight judges” appointed to the federal courts: in Marshall’s case, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his epochal 34-year term as Chief Justice would shape the future evolution of American jurisprudence.

Rising on March 7, 1800, in defense of President Adams’s conduct in the Nash case, Representative Marshall gave a preview of the strong federalist perspective that would define his time on the bench. (Read it in full here.)

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations … He possesses the whole Executive power. He holds and directs the force of the nation. Of consequence, any act to be performed by the force of the nation is to be performed through him.

This passage was exhumed from Congressional archives for citation in a 1936 Supreme Court case on federal supremacy, and has proceeded thence into a go-to bullet point for every latter-day defender of any arbitrary executive authority.

Of consequence (as Marshall might put it), Marshall’s speech about Nash gets an approving reference in Bush administration lawyer — and possible future extradition subject?John Yoo‘s September 25, 2001 memorandum on “The President’s Constitutional Authority to Conduct Military Operations Against Terrorists and Nations Supporting Them”.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, too, quotes this phrase in his Hamdi v. Rumsfeld dissent, further to the doctrine that a man consigned to a presidential oubliette has no recourse to the courts; Justice John Harlan used it (with the rather grandiosely exaggerated qualifier that “from that time, shortly after the founding of the Nation, to this, there has been no substantial challenge to this description”) in his dissent in the Pentagon Papers case to claim that Richard Nixon could prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the embarrassing classified history of the Vietnam War.‡

So in this imperial age, Thomas Nash is more with us than ever he was. Who knows but what noxious monarchical theories are even now being buttressed with footnotes resolving to the vindictive execution of that obscure mariner two centuries past?

* The Surprise features prominently in novelist Patrick O’Brian‘s beloved Aubrey-Maturin series of nautical adventure novels, the most widely recognized of which is Master and Commander.

Given the vessel’s centrality in this popular series, there’s a book all about the colorful history of the Surprise. In reality, the Surprise — actually a captured French ship herself — was sold out of the service in 1802, prior to the notional 1805 setting of both the cinematic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the book in the series when Jack Aubrey first commands her.

** … hardly ever.

† Rightly, it’s generally presumed; “Robbins” is alleged (albeit by his self-interested executioners) to have confessed to being Nash before his execution. This entry garners the Wrongful Execution tag on the basis of its contested American jurisprudence.

‡ The limited aim of Marshall’s speech in context, and its subsequent (mis)appropriation, is the subject of an interesting and accessible-to-laypersons law review article here. (pdf) This tome gets a bit more into the weeds on the way the separation of powers operated practically as the Nash case unfolded in Judge Bee’s court.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Soldiers,USA,Wrongful Executions

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