September 22nd, 2008
On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques
in New York contend to mark the execution spot.
Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.
When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.
As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.
The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Gah.
If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:
How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.
There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.
Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.
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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Language,Martyrs,New York,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1776, american revolution, epigrams, george washington, ivy league, manhattan, nathan hale, new york city, september 22, william howe, yale
August 30th, 2008
On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.
The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”
Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.
Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.
A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.
Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,
You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.
“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)
Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.
Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.
In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.
Talk about donor recognition.
While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.
At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.
And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.
According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”
* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Public Executions,Scandal,USA
Tags: 1850, academia, anatomy, august 30, boston, boston brahmins, class, debt, dentistry, donors, education, ephraim littlefield, forensics, george parkman, harvard, identity, ivy league, john webster, leverett square, major donors, medical school