1830: Ebenezer Cox, gone postal gunsmith

Add comment August 27th, 2017 Headsman

Long before slavery abolitionist John Brown wrote its name into the firmament, Harpers Ferry* was a vital cog for the military of the young United States. Its armory, founded at George Washington‘s behest at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers whose waters turned its machines, was the 1b supplier of small arms to American soldiery alongside a similar facility in Springfield, Mass.

But it was also a bit of a problem child from the start: the facility too small, the location too inaccessible,** the manufacturing process too inefficient.

Hoping to remedy at least the last of these, a fellow named Thomas Dunn was hired from the Antietam Iron Works in 1829 for a managerial task that was not calculated to please the Harpers Ferry armorers.

So detested were Dunn’s downsizing and production speedups that one armory hand name of Ebenezer Cox — having been laid off and subsequently balked of a re-hire on grounds of being a volatile drunk — simply walked into the boss’s office one day in January 1830 and gave him a taste of his own product.

Hopefully the irony wasn’t lost on anyone because the message for labor-management relations had the sharp report of a Model 1803: Cox “became a folk hero among the armorers; whenever future managers tried to impose factory discipline Cox’s name was always mentioned to the armory officials.” (Source)

Folk hero … and martyr. Cox naturally still had to pay the price for his early instance of going postal, and the Library of Congress helpfully preserves for ready access a Narrative of the life, trial, confession, sentence of death, and execution of Ebenezer W. Cox.

While we can scarcely evaluate Cox’s craft when it came to boring a muzzle, he was certainly not a man who wanted for an engineering cast of mind.

Preceding the fatal hour, strong suspenders were prepared, with hooks under or near the collar of his shirt or shroud, so contrived as to prevent suffocation, provided the rope could be securely placed within the crooks; and no doubt this plan would have succeeded, and the culprit been preserved alive, had the rope been deliberately fixed. But owing, probably, either to want of time, or through perturbation of mind, something was omitted, and only one of the hooks caught the fatal cord which twisted his neck awry; and although it did not prevent his finally suffocating, he apparently died with all the agonies of a lingering and protracted death.


“John Brown’s Fort”, the armory’s former guard and fire engine house. Though not yet extant at the time of Cox’s crime, it’s the best we’ll do since the rest of the original armory was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt. (cc) image by Doug Kerr.

* Harpers Ferry was in Virginia at the time of these events; today, it’s in West Virginia.

** Connections via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would arrive in the 1830s.

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1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless souls in The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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1822: Hannah Halley, scalding infanticide

Add comment March 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Hannah Halley went to the gallows at Derby for murdering her newborn child — by the gruesome expedient of pouring scalding water on it.*

“That it was her intention to destroy the infant was inferred, from her constant denial of the pregnancy,” observed the Derby Mercury (March 27, 1822), building towards indignation, “and from her having made no preparation of baby linen tho’ the child was full grown at the time of its birth.”

On being charged with the intention of murdering the infant by those who first discovered it, she made no answer; and subsequently when asked what incited her to commit such a deed, she replied “it was the devil who caused her to do it.” This is the usual apology assigned for their evil deeds by those who are too ignorant to analyze the real motives of their actions; who are not willing, from self love, to view their conduct in its true light; and who chuse to refer the corrupt habits formed by previous indulgence, to any cause however improbable and groundless, rather than to their own depraved dispositions.

One might perceive other factors in Halley’s desperation than her depravity.

The 31-year-old cotton mill laborer had conceived the child out of wedlock and lacked the means to care for it. Family and workplace constraints converge here, in what sequence one can only guess: Hannah married a man — not the baby’s father — two months before she secretly delivered.

Infanticide cases we have seen on this site frequently involve a pregnant woman far advanced in her term who raises eyebrows by denying the pregnancy all the way to the end; surely this must also be true of some infanticidal mothers who get away with the deed in the end.

In this instance, the husband too denied knowledge of his wife’s pregnancy: he was believed, and was not punished. I cannot document this hypothesis, but I often wonder if individuals who end up executed for infanticide are falling prey as much as anything to their standing among their community. For a woman of little means like Hannah Halley, does it all come down to whether her popularity among her neighbors — or specifically among the other women who shared her lodging-house and decided to report hearing a baby’s cry from her room — is sufficient to induce them tacitly to go along with the cover story? Was her husband’s convenient (and conveniently accepted) denial only produced because the matter unexpectedly went to the courts?

A woman of “feeble frame”, she died with apparent ease and was given over for dissection afterwards. She was the second and last woman hanged outside Friar Gate Gaol, and the second and last Hannah.

And the march of industry that shaped Halley’s working life was also to be found at work in her death. The Mercury once again:

The drop used on the above occasion was constructed by Mr. Bamford, of this town. It is formed principally of wrought iron, and tho’ it has a general resemblance to that previously in use, it has a much lighter appearance. The great advantages of the new drop consist in the facility with which it can be put up, the consequent diminution of expense on every execution, and the decreased annoyance to the neighbourhood. Formerly it was necessary to commence bringing out the heavy timbers of which the old drop was constructed early in the morning, and many hours were required to complete its erection, during which the loud sounds of mallets and hammers rung in the ears and suddened the hearts of the surrounding inhabitants. The new drop can be prepared for use in ten minutes (as we are informed) and taken down in the same time. In fact it is drawn from the wall of which the front of it forms a part, and is supported by iron rods let down upon the ground beneath. Ingenious however as its construction appears, it would be infinitely more consonant to our feelings to report such improved arrangements in prison discipline, and such modifications of the existing criminal code as should render the use of this dreadful instrument of death less familiar to the public mind.

* The nameless child survived four days in what one supposes must have been unbearable pain.

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1813: 14 Luddites at York

Add comment January 16th, 2013 Luddite Bicentennary

On this date in 1813, the British intensified their war against machine-wrecking Luddites by executing 14 at York.

We touched last week on Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe, three Luddites hanged for assassinating a wool manufacturer during the dirty war that resulted from mechanizing formerly-artisanal textile production. The Luddite Bicentenary blog was prominently linked in that post; it’s been chronicling the real-time course of the Luddite rebellion from two hundred years’ remove, and is a recommended follow for anyone interested in this period.

Today, the Luddite Bicentenary marks the mass hangings of January 16, 1813, pursuant to sentences issued by that same special tribunal in York. Most had been convicted of an attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill; others, for taking part in two home-invasion robberies for the purpose of obtaining weapons.

Enjoy the full story at Luddite Bicentenary … but here’s a teaser excerpt from the January 23, 1813 Leeds Mercury‘s account of the “inexpressibly awful” sequential mass-hangings, seven upon seven, widowing 13 wives and leaving 56 children (and a 57th on the way) fatherless.

Execution.

After sentence of death had been passed upon the persons convicted of making the attack on Mr. Cartwright’s Mill, at Rawfolds, and of the Burglaries, fifteen in number, all of them except John Lumb, who was reprieved, were removed to the condemned-ward, and their behaviour in that place was very suitable to their unhappy situation…

if any of these unfortunate men possessed any secret that it might have been important to the public to know, they suffered it to die with them. Their discoveries were meagre in the extreme. Not one of them impeached any of their accomplices, nor did they state, as might reasonably have been expected, where the depot of arms, in the collection of which some of them had been personally engaged, was to be found. When interrogated on this point, some of them disclaimed all knowledge of the place, and others said, Benjamin Walker, the informer against Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith, could give the best information about the arms, as he had been present at most of the depredations. … The principal part of these ill-fated men were married and have left families. William Hartley, has left seven children, their mother, happily for herself, died about half a year ago. John Ogden, wife and two children; Nathan Hoyle, wife and seven children; Joseph Crowther, wife pregnant, and four children; John Hill, wife and two children; John Walker, wife and five children; Jonathan Dean, wife and seven children; Thomas Brook, wife and three children; John Swallow, wife and six children; John Batley, wife and one child; John Fisher, wife and three children; Job Hey, wife and seven children; James Hey, wife and two children; James Haigh, wife, but no children. On the morning before the execution, the eldest daughter of Hartley obtain permission to visit a wretched parent, when a scene took place which we will not attempt to describe. The heart-broken father wished to have been spared the anguish of this parting interval, but the importunate intreaties of his child a last prevailed, and they met to take a long farewell, never again to be repeated in this world. What must be the feelings of an affectionate father, (for such in this trying moment he appears to have shewn himself,) when, though standing on the brink of eternity, he declines to see a darling child; how great an aggravation of his punishment must those parting pangs of inflicted, and how loud an admonition does this melancholy incident suggest to the Fathers of families against entering into combinations that may place them in the same inexpressibly afflicted situations. It was Hartley’s particular request that the public should be informed of the number and unprovided situation of his orphan family.

At 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, the Under Sheriff went to demand the bodies of John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, and Thomas Brook. They were all engaged in singing a hymn:

Behold the Saviour of Mankind,
Nail’d to the shameful tree;
How vast the love that him inclin’d
To bleed and for me, &c.

Which one of them [Luddite Bicentennary notes: John Walker, according to the Leeds Intelligencer] dictated in a firm tone of voice; and in this religious service they continued on their way to the platform, and some time after they had arrived at the fatal spot. They then join the ordinary with great fervency in the prayers appointed to be read on such occasions, and after that gentleman had taken his final leave of them, ejaculations to the throne of mercy rose from every part of the crowded platform.

Joseph Crowther addressing himself to the spectators said, “Farewell Lads;” another whose name we could not collect said, “I am prepared for the Lord,” and John Hill, advancing a step or two on the platform, said, “Friends! all take warning by my fate; for three years I followed the Lord, but about half a year since, I began to fall away; and fell by little and little, and at last I am come to this; persevere in the ways of godliness, and O! take warning by my fate!” The executioner then proceeded to the discharge of his duty, and the falling of the platform soon after, forced an involuntary shriek from the vast concourse of spectators assembled to witness this tremendous sacrifice to the injured laws of the country.

The bodies having remained suspended for the usual time [LB: 12.00 p.m.], they were removed, and while the place of execution was yet warm with the blood of the former victims, the remaining seven, namely, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, William Hartley, James Haigh, James Hey, and Job Hey, were led at half-past one o’clock from their cell to the fatal stage, their behaviour, like that of their deceased confederates, was contrite and becoming; James Haigh expressed deep contrition for his offences. John Swallow said he had been led away by wicked and unprincipled men, and hoped his fate would be a warning to all, and teach them to live a life of sobriety and uprightness. They all united in prayer with an earnestness that is seldom witnessed in the services of devotion, except in the immediate prospect of death [LB: the Leeds Intelligencer said they sung the same hymn as those executed earlier]. A few moments closed their mortal existence, and placed at the bar differing from all earthly tribunal’s [sic] in this infinitely important particular — here, owing to the imperfections of all human institutions, repentance though sincere, cannot procure forgiveness — there, we have the authority of God himself for saying, that the cries of the contrite and broken-hearted shall not be despised. Charity hopeth all things.

The criminal records of Yorkshire do not perhaps afford an instance of so many victims having been offered in one day to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave to the scene of peculiar degree of terror, and exhibited the appearance of a military execution. The spectators, particularly in the morning, were unusually numerous, and their behaviour on both occasions, were strictly decorous and unbecoming. [sic]

Full post at Luddite Bicentennary. Also see LB on the mood of the town.

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1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall

1 comment January 8th, 2013 Headsman

This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.

“Luddite” has come to refer imprecisely to a wide range of anti-mechanization machine-wrecking in early 19th century Britain; however, it’s most properly applied to a specific 1811-1816 movement.

While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.

With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.


Via

“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”

Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”

And the descriptor “war” was not far off.

The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.

It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.

And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.

-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)

From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”

Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.

And the wreckers fought back.

William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.

“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.

It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.

Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.

They were tried over 11 hours on a single day, January 6, 1813 (summary: 1, 2, 3, 4).

That was a Wednesday.

That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.

“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.

all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.

The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.

* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.

** Not far from the spot of Horsfall’s murder — and a standard stop on every present-day Luddite commemorative walk — you’ll still find William Horsfall Street.

† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.

‡ Benjamin Walker, the Luddite informer who sent Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe to the gallows, was denied the advertised £2000 reward and wound up a beggar in London.

§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)

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1769: Two weavers, for the Spitalfield riots

4 comments December 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1769, two weavers hanged in East London in a bitter fight over wages and labor power.

Spitalfields, the East London district also known as the stomping-ground of legendary jailbreaker Jack Sheppard, was the capital of a thriving English silk-weaving industry. It had attained 18th century prosperity thanks in large measure to the decision of William and Mary to invite Lyons Huguenots being hard-pressed by the French crown to relocate their talents across the channel. This now-domestic industry* quickly began supplanting formerly dominant French imports.

In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribbon made here were as good as those from France, and that £300,000 worth of black silk for hoods and scarves was made annually. In 1721 the value of the silk manufactured in England amounted to £700,000 more than in 1688, when wrought silks were imported from France to the annual value of half a million sterling. (Source)

In this roaring and prestigious business, William Hogarth situated his 1747 Industry & Idleness plates: both the Industrious Prentice (eventually destined to become Lord Mayor of London) and the Idle Prentice (eventually executed at Tyburn) start off shoulder to shoulder at the Spitalfields looms.

But as the 18th century unfolded, even the most industrious Spitalfield weavers came under increasing competitive pressure especially from Chinese and Indian imports.

Although Parliament attempted to ban textile imports to preserve the domestic industries, Spitalfield workers were known to enforce their prerogatives directly by attacking people in the street thought to be wearing foreign prints. This simmering tension came to a rapid boil after settlement of the Seven Years’ War enabled England and France to resume trading — and a glut of French textiles to undermine weavers’ price controls.

Conflicts were no less fierce within the weavers’ community, between masters and laborers. Workers combined to maintain wages by attacking those thought to be undercutting prices.

In September 1769, one such action punished a wealthy anti-“combination” (for “combination”, read “labor union”) manufacturer named Lewis Chauvet, and cut the silk handkerchiefs right out of his looms.


From Season 3, Episode 2 of the BBC drama Garrow’s Law, which is directly based on this case. As of this writing, the entire episode can be found on YouTube.

Cutting silk from the loom was a rough method of enforcement by the labor combination. It had also been made a capital crime a few years before. And it turned out that Chauvet was ready to make his the test case.

Richly paying off a couple of independent artisan weavers for their questionable testimony, he secured the conviction of John Valloine or Valline (other alternate spellings are possible; the name clearly denotes the district’s Huguenot heritage) and John Doyle, two weavers allegedly part of the loom-smashing action. The accused denied it, Doyle reported to have fulminated at the gallows, “I am as innocent of the fact I am now to die for as the child unborn. Let my blood lie to that wicked man who has purchased it with gold, and them notorious wretches who swore it falsely away.”**

Manufacturers’ purposes were served just as well whether innocent or guilty. The point was labor discipline, not a few lost hankies.

Accordingly fixing “to strike Terror into the Rioters”, the crown ordered the execution to occur not at the Tyburn gallows, but right in the weavers’ backyard, adjacent Spitalfields at Bethnal Green.

This order actually delayed the sentence for the judiciary’s consideration of the minor point of whether this was allowed at all — since the actual boilerplate sentence read from the bench had specified “the usual place.” The wisest magistrates of the land considered the matter and in time agreed that “the time and place of execution was no part of the sentence” and therefore subject to His Majesty’s discretion. Bethnal Green it was.

They were therefore this morning taken in a cart from Newgate through the City to Whitechapel, and thence up the road to Bethnal Green, attended by the Sheriffs &c, with the gallows, made for the purpose, in another cart; it was fixed in the cross road, near the Salmon and Ball.


The Salmon and Ball pub, where the execution happened, today. (cc) image by Ewan Munro.

There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends. (cited here)

Vengeful weavers having their noses rubbed in their comrades’ executions smashed up Chauvet’s house in the riots on this date, and the powers that be decided that one hanging-day at Bethnal Green was plenty. A few other rioters convicted as confederates of Doyle and Valline were put to death at Tybun later in December 1769.

Years of violent labor conflict were finally quelled with the 1773 Spitalfield Weavers Act, a political compromise which protected the domestic industry from foreign competition and enabled magistrates to set wages.

Though this act stabilized a tense domestic situation, its effect over several decades was seriously problematic: a protected monopoly with wage-controlled workers maintained an increasingly obsolete system of labor-intensive manufacture that fell behind power looms coming online elsewhere.

As late as 1851 — mechanization wouldn’t fully take over until Britain’s trade liberalization of the 1860s — Charles Dickens visited Spitalfields, and saw a weaver

doing now, exactly what his grandfather did. Nothing would induce him to use a simple improvement (the ‘fly shuttle’) to prevent the contraction of the chest of which he complains. Nothing would turn him aside from his old ways. It is the old custom to work at home, in a crowded room, instead of in a factory.

Disallowed from taking lower wages even in bad times (or when cheaper cotton started displacing silk), many weavers sat completely unemployed instead — gradually sinking into a proletarianization they had fought to avoid. Spitalfield weavers eventually became one of the classic case studies in the laissez faire economics canon.

* Just to be clear, Huguenots weren’t the first silk weavers in Spitalfields; it’s just that their arrival let the industry take off.

** The hanged man’s comrades made good his gallows menace. Peter Linebaugh, whose The London Hanged is an outstanding resource on the economic pressures that brought these weavers and many others to the gallows, relates:

At noon upon a cold and snowy day, 16 April 1771, [Chauvet’s paid witness against the weavers] Daniel Clarke … went walking in Spitalfields. It had been sixteen months since the hangings of the cutters whom Clarke had sworn against, and he must have thought the people cowed or forgetful. He was recognized. ‘There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal,’ was the shout, and instantly a small crowd gathered to badger and pester him. He took to his heels and found temporary refuge in the house of Mary Snee. The currents of popular memory run deep; now they flooded to the surface. A hundred people beset the house hurling maledictions. ‘They would hang him, or burn him, or stone him,’ said Mary Snee. He was cornered, stripped and dragged by his feet into the street, where he was led by the neck on a parade of humiliation. The crowds grew. Widow Horsford [wife of one of the weavers hanged later in December 1769 at Tyburn] was seen to ‘jump out of the loom’ at the news Clarke was cursed and dragged to the brick-fields. Children pelted him with dirt. Bespattered with muck, he was thrown into a pond where he was ducked within a breath of drowning. He was removed to a sandheap, buried, dug up and returned to the freezing water. It was estimated that the crowd numbered 3,000. While he could speak, he taunted his tormentors, saying ‘he would take twenty of them’. Widow Horsford said, ‘Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my children is fatherless on account of you.’ Clarke answered, ‘Chauvet is worse than me,’ and then he expired. A grim ending that would be remembered for generations.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Pelf,Public Executions,Rioting,Terrorists

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1803: Thomas Hilliker, teen machine wrecker

9 comments March 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1803, 19-year-old apprentice Thomas Hilliker (or Helliker, or Heliker, or Hiliker) was hanged on doubtful eyewitness identification for having helped torch Littleton Mill near Semington during an anti-mechanization protest.

The youth’s affecting handwritten last letter, on display at the Trowbridge Museum, was recently selected by the BBC for its “History of the World in 100 Objects” series.

“Remember my last Fate …” Detail view of Thomas’s letter, as seen in the BBC series. (For the full letter: page 1; page 2) Images (c) Trowbridge Museum, and used with permission.

Executed Today is pleased to mark the anniversary of Thomas Hilliker’s hanging with a chat with Trowbridge Museum Curator Clare Lyall.

ET: Can you put in context the significance of burning down a mill in Wiltshire in the early 1800s?

CL: This was part of organized resistance against mechanization that had begun to turn violent. Mills at Warminster and Bedington had already been burned. There was widespread opposition to processes that were perceived as threatening jobs and this was indicated by many employees joining unions despite the union’s illegal status.

Thomas Hilliker was 19 when he died. What do we know about him? What kind of life did he lead?

Thomas was a literate, apprentice shearman. The job of a shearman was highly skilled and involved the cropping of the raised nap of the cloth to ensure that a finely knitted fibre remained. He was only two years into a five-year apprenticeship when he was arrested. We have little evidence about the type of life he led. There was a statement that gave him an alibi for the night of the burning down of Littleton Mill, when one of his friends found him drunk outside a cottage where he had been visiting and took him in there to spend the night in the kitchen. I guess from that we can conclude that like many teenagers he liked on occasion to drink alcohol to excess.

You’re quoted on thisiswiltshire.co.uk as saying that Hilliker “was probably the wrong guy.” Was he wrongfully executed?

There were contradictory statements about whether Hilliker was actually there holding the Mill manager prisoner whilst the Mill was burned. He also had an alibi for that evening and it would have been very unusual for senior union men to have involved a junior member with such a serious event. I think all this casts doubt on his guilt.

What did Thomas have to say to his family in this last letter? What does that tell us about his life?

It was a moving farewell to his parents and siblings with a request for them not to forget him and to stay out of trouble. I don’t think this was an admission of his involvement in the Littleton Mill incident but may refer to his membership of an illegal organization, a union which after what had happened to him might have considered wasn’t worth the risk.

As a curator, how do you present this artifact to visitors? What kind of reactions does it typically draw?

We present the letter in a display case which has a controlled environment and subdued lighting. There is a transcription of his final letter that is displayed on the outside of the case and adjacent to the letter.

Many people are moved by the letter and why he never told who the true culprits were.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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