1754: Captain John Lancey, Devonshire arsonist

1 comment June 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1754, Captain John Lancey hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames — the victim of his brother-in-law’s clumsy insurance scheme.

We here defer to the dolorous annals known as the Newgate Calendar, so familiar around these parts, which subtitles its entry as …


Executed at Execution Dock, 7th of June, 1754, for burning a Ship at the Instigation of a Member of Parliament

This unfortunate man fell a dupe to an artful and wicked villain, his employer, who at the time was a disgraceful Member of the House of Commons, and who, to avoid the punishment due to his crimes, fled, and left the unfortunate subject whose case is before us a victim to his baseness.

Not this John (de) Lancie.

Captain John Lancey was a native of Bideford, in Devonshire, respectably born and well educated. As he gave early proofs of an inclination for a seafaring life he was taught navigation, was attentive to his studies, and gave proofs of a goodness of disposition that promised a better fate than afterwards attended him.

Lancey was sent to sea as mate of a ship, of which Mr. Benson, a rich merchant at Biddeford, was the proprietor. Lancey, having married a relation of Benson’s, was soon advanced to the command of the vessel. This Benson was Member of Parliament for Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and what kind of character he deserved will appear in the sequel.

After Lancey had returned from a long voyage he was for a considerable time confined to his bed by a violent illness, the expense of which tended considerably to impoverish him. When he had partly recovered, Benson told him that he proposed to refit the ship in which he had formerly sailed; that Lancey should have the command of her; that he (Benson) would insure her for more than double her value, and then Lancey should destroy the vessel.

This proposal appeared shocking to Lancey, who thought it but a trial of his honesty, and declared his sentiments, saying that he would never take any part in a transaction so totally opposite to the whole tenor of his conduct.

For the present nothing more was said; but soon afterwards Benson invited Lancey and several other gentlemen to dine with him. The entertainment was liberal; and, Captain Lancey being asked to stay after the rest of the company were gone, Mr Benson took him to a summer-house in the garden, where he again proposed destroying the ship, and urged it in a manner that proved he was in earnest.

Captain Lancey hesitated a short time on this proposal and then declined to have any concern in so iniquitous a scheme, declaring that he would seek other employment rather than take any part in such a transaction. But Benson, resolving if possible not to lose his agent, prevailed on him to drink freely, and then urged every argument he could think of to prevail on him to undertake the business, promising to shelter him from punishment in case of detection.

Lancey still hesitated. But when Benson mentioned the poverty to which his family was reduced by his late illness, and offered such flattering prospects of protection, the unhappy man at length yielded, to his own destruction. A ship was now fitted out, bound for Maryland: and goods to a large amount were shipped on board, but relanded before the vessel sailed, and a lading of brickbats taken in by way of ballast. They had not been long at sea when a hole was bored in the side of the ship and a cask of combustible ingredients was set on fire, with a view to destroying her. The fire no sooner appeared than the Captain called to some convicted transports, then in the hold, to inquire if they had fired the vessel; which appears to have been only a feint to conceal the real design.

The boat being hoisted out, all the crew got safe on shore; and then Lancey repaired immediately to Benson to inform him of what had passed. Benson instantly dispatched him to a proctor, before whom he swore that the ship had accidentally taken fire, and that it was impossible to prevent the consequences which followed.

Lancey now repaired to his own house, and continued with as much apparent unconcern as if such a piece of villainy had not been perpetrated; but he was soon afterwards taken into custody by a constable, who informed him that oath had been made of the transaction before the Mayor of Exeter by one of the seamen. Lancey, however, did not express much concern, secure in his idea of protection from the supposed influence of Benson.

On the following day Lancey and one of the ship’s crew were committed to the jail of Exeter, where they remained three months; and being then removed to London were examined by Sir Thomas Salisbury, the judge of the Admiralty Court, and committed to the prison of the Marshalsea. Application was afterwards made to the Court of Admiralty to admit them to bail; and there appeared to be no objection to granting the favour, but Benson, on whom they had depended for bail, had absconded, to escape the justice due to his atrocious crime.

Being committed to Newgate, they were brought to trial at the next Sessions of Admiralty held at the Old Bailey,when Lancey was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, but the other was acquitted.

Lancey lay in prison about four months after conviction, during which his behaviour was altogether consistent with his unhappy situation. His Christian charity was remarkable towards Benson; for, though that wicked man had been the cause and instigator of his ruin, yet he never once reflected on him, but imputed all the crime to himself, and appeared to behold it in its genuine light of deformity.

It was presumed, when he was first apprehended, that he might have been admitted an evidence against Benson, if he would have impeached him; but this he steadily refused to do.

His devotional exercises were exemplary: he attended prayers in the most regular manner, and gave every proof of his contrition. He was accompanied to the place of execution by two clergymen; and, having confessed his guilt in a speech to the surrounding multitude, he underwent the sentence of the law on the 7th of June, 1754, at Execution Dock, in the 27th year of his age.

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1899: Cordelia Poirier and Samuel Parslow

2 comments March 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Cordelia Poirier was hanged in Ste. Scholastique, Quebec with her lover Samuel Parslow.*

Cordelia Viau by her maiden name, the femme fatale in this transaction found that in her marriage to one Isidore Poirier she was much the sturdier spirit.

“She was a masterful woman,” this old public-domain text on insurance crimes muses, “and Poirier seems to have been a man of very common mould. He was not great or strong enough to make his wife admire or respect him, yet was too obstinate to yield to her domination.”

Cordelia soon turned this gap in magnetism to good effect on Mr. Parslow, a local carpenter, to the considerable scandal of their village, Saint-Canut.

An intolerable domestic situation drove Isidore Poirier to the bottle, and Cordelia Poirier to the insurance underwriters — from whom she obtained two separate $1,000 policies on the life of her spouse. Much to the discredit of her agents (and, one must suspect, to the commission wage model), the wife’s blunt inquiries as to whether a death by assassination woud void the policies were met with simple affirmations rather than a summons to the constable.

Sure enough, Isidore Poirier suffered just such a death on November 21, 1897: after vespers (Cordelia was an organist at the church), she and Parslow barged in on the intoxicated Isidore at his home and Parslow slashed him to death with a butcher knife. The body was discovered the next day, and it wasn’t hard to put means to motive and clap the adulterers in gaol.

Having perhaps not thought this venture through, Samuel Parslow and Cordelia Poirier promptly began informing on one another in hopes of avoiding the rope. Their confessions would only cinch one another’s fates. By the time of trial, Parslow had to feebly accuse Mrs. Poirier of hypnotizing him.**

Her cynical domestic crime and vampish reputation earned her an extreme level of disapprobation: her behavior obviously inverted and betrayed the model of domestic virtue whose penumbra of sentimentality has often been counted on to save female murderers from the gallows. Cordelia Poirier was actively hated.

“The crowd inside the jail jeered [Cordelia Poirier],” it was reported — “but even then her nerve did not desert her, and at the suggestion of the executioner she turned and faced the Jeerers, and stood erect and prayed to the last.”

* Thanks to the wonders of database searches, research for this post also revealed a completely different legal drama off the same era related to a competely different Parslow. This story is from the Feb. 4, 1898 Minneapolis Journal.

** All reports do paint Cordelia Poirier as the stronger will in her adulterous relationship, as well as her marital one, and the instigator of the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Pelf,Quebec,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1846: John Rodda, nobody chokes baby on acid

1 comment August 8th, 2013 Headsman

John Rodda was hanged on this date in 1846 behind York Castle on “a charge so unusual and so repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature.”

Rodda murdered his 18-month-old daughter Mary by pouring sulphuric acid down her throat.

The motive: as a member of a burial society — a sort of community insurance pool for defraying funeral costs — Rodda stood to pocket two pounds, 10 shillings for the death of his little girl. (Was that a lot of money in those days? Not really.)

The most complete account of this event The Criminal Chronology of York Castle, and it underscores what a rum job Rodda did of cashing in on Mary.

On April 18th of that year, while the baby was on the mend from some routine affliction of infancy, John Rodda bought a penny’s worth of vitriol from a druggist.

The next day, Mary’s condition took an abrupt turn for the worse after being left a few minutes in her father’s care, and the acid was found in her stomach. Hmmmmm.

A few days previously to his execution, he made a full confession of his guilt, and stated that avarice was his only motive for sacrificing his innocent and unoffending child, whom it was his duty as a parent to have succoured and protected; but whom he coolly, deliberately, and cruelly murdered for the sake of filthy lucre. But the day of execution at last arrived, and the greatly erring young man’s earthly hopes and fears were soon to terminate. At an early hour on Saturday morning, August 8th, the workmen commenced erecting the drop in front of St. George’s Field, and the solemn preparations for the awful ceremony were speedily completed. At the usual hour the wretched man, with blanched cheek and dejected look — his arms pinioned — appeared on the scaffold, attended by the regular officials; after spending a few minutes in prayer, the executioner proceeded to perform the duties of his office, by drawing the cap over his eyes and adjusting the rope, when the fatal bolt was withdrawn — the drop fell — a convulsive struggle ensued — and the unhappy mortal ceased to exist.

There was a large concourse of spectators assembled in St. George’s Field, and the intervening road, to witness the appalling spectacle, amongst whom were a great number of the lower orders of the Irish, who had congregated to witness the last moments of their fellow-countryman.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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1868: Joseph Brown, for arson, murder, and money

1 comment May 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Joseph Brown hanged in Hudson, N.Y..

He and his wife Josephine had recently moved to the hamlet of Canaan just this side of the Massachusetts border. With them was a twelve-year-old daughter.

On the night of December 5, 1867, they left little Angie in their basement rental and called on neighbors for the evening — and the house went up in flames. Neighbors rushing to the emergency had to force their way through the doors to extinguish the blaze, and discovered the Angie’s scorched remains amid several bushels of suspiciously flammable rubbish. Some neighbors thought the Browns had not hurried to the scene as they ought, and found their expressions of grief unconvincing.

These dubious circumstances could hardly help but lift an eyebrow, but in the end there was little for it and a coroner ruled the death accidental, perhaps caused by the unattended child attempting to fill a lighted kerosene lamp.

However, the fate of “poor little Angie” took on a decidedly more sinister cast when the Browns turned around and filed for a $5,000 life insurance benefit on Angie’s bones — a short-term, three-month policy due to expire in two weeks. A suspiciously dead child was one thing, but now there was money at stake. Travelers Insurance — the present-day corporate conglomerate then in its infancy, carving out its titular niche with innovative policies insuring against once-dangerous rail travel — put some real investigative muscle into the situation before it paid up.

The facts as developed by Travelers made a damning circumstantial case against the couple that was soon taken over by the criminal authorities: “a reflected glow of guilt,” in the summing-up of the state’s attorney who prosecuted Joseph.

Angie turned out not to be the couple’s own child at all, but a loaner from a woman in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. She had given permission for her daughter to accompany the couple on a trip to Connecticut. (A weird arrangement in which the child was to call them “mother” and “father”, but one made innocently by the victim’s natural mother so far as anyone could determine.)

En route, Joe and Jo insured the life of this child who was not their own. And by the time they got to Canaan, Joseph had indiscreetly negotiated to purchase some property, intimating an ability in no way justified by his pre-fire resources to pay several thousand dollars cash on the nail.

To cinch Joseph’s conviction, physicians hired by Travelers testified that Angie had not inhaled smoke … meaning that she was dead before the fire started at all.

“I have told the insurance company that I would give them the policy if they would let me go,” a desperate Joseph at one point said in a police interview. He should have thought of that sooner.

But he was, as he said on the scaffold, “not an accomplished man” and he could only complain confusedly about minor points of the trial he considered prejudicial while maintaining a general insistence upon his innocence that persuaded nobody.

At the time of this hanging, Josephine Brown still lay in the Columbia County jail awaiting her turn at the bar in the same affair. But despite the sense among many participants in the case that it was she who instigated her cloddish husband to the lucrative homicide, the prosecution couldn’t assemble a satisfactory case and dropped charges later that year.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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