1685: Elizabeth Gaunt, for refuge

Add comment October 23rd, 2018 Thomas Babington Macaulay

(Thanks to Thomas Babington Macaulay for the guest post on “the blackest [case] which disgraced the sessions” prosecuting the Rye House Plot to kidnap and murder King Charles II and his Catholic brother soon-to-be-heir James. It originally appeared in Macaulay’s History of England. -ed.)

Among the persons concerned in the Rye House plot was a man named James Burton. By his own confession he had been present when the design of assassination was discussed by his accomplices.

When the conspiracy was detected, a reward was offered for his apprehension. He was saved from death by an ancient matron of the Baptist persuasion, named Elizabeth Gaunt.

This woman, with the peculiar manners and phraseology which then distinguished her sect, had a large charity. Her life was passed in relieving the unhappy of all religious denominations, and she was well known as a constant visitor of the gaols.

Her political and theological opinions, as well as her compassionate disposition, led her to do everything in her power for Burton. She procured a boat which took him to Gravesend, where he got on board of a ship bound for Amsterdam. At the moment of parting she put into his hand a sum of money which, for her means, was very large.

Burton, after living some time in exile, returned to England with Monmouth, fought at Sedgemoor, fled to London, and took refuge in the house of John Fernley, a barber in Whitechapel.

Fernley was very poor. He was besieged by creditors. He knew that a reward of a hundred pounds had been offered by the government for the apprehension of Burton. But the honest man was incapable of betraying one who, in extreme peril, had come under the shadow of his roof.

Unhappily it was soon noised abroad that the anger of James was more strongly excited against those who harboured rebels than against the rebels themselves. He had publicly declared that of all forms of treason the hiding of traitors from his vengeance was the most unpardonable. Burton knew this. He delivered himself up to the government; and he gave information against Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt.

They were brought to trial. The villain whose life they had preserved had the heart and the forehead to appear as the principal witness against them.

They were convicted. Fernley was sentenced to the gallows, Elizabeth Gaunt to the stake. Even after all the horrors of that year, many thought it impossible that these judgments should be carried into execution. But the King was without pity. Fernley was hanged. Elizabeth Gaunt was burned alive at Tyburn on the same day on which Cornish suffered death in Cheapside.

She left a paper written, indeed, in no graceful style, yet such as was read by many thousands with compassion and horror. “My fault,” she said, “was one which a prince might well have forgiven. I did but relieve a poor family; and lo! I must die for it.”

She complained of the insolence of the judges, of the ferocity of the gaoler, and of the tyranny of him, the great one of all, to whose pleasure she and so many other victims had been sacrificed. In so far as they had injured herself, she forgave them: but, in that they were implacable enemies of that good cause which would yet revive and flourish, she left them to the judgment of the King of Kings.

To the last she preserved a tranquil courage, which reminded the spectators of the most heroic deaths of which they had read in Fox. William Penn, for whom exhibitions which humane men generally avoid seem to have had a strong attraction, hastened from Cheapside, where he had seen Cornish hanged, to Tyburn, in order to see Elizabeth Gaunt burned. He afterwards related that, when she calmly disposed the straw about her in such a manner as to shorten her sufferings, all the bystanders burst into tears.

It was much noticed that, while the foulest judicial murder which had disgraced even those times was perpetrating, a tempest burst forth, such as had not been known since that great hurricane which had raged round the deathbed of Oliver. The oppressed Puritans reckoned up, not without a gloomy satisfaction the houses which had been blown down, and the ships which had been cast away, and derived some consolation from thinking that heaven was bearing awful testimony against the iniquity which afflicted the earth. Since that terrible day no woman has suffered death in England for any political offence.


Newgate, 22d of Octob. 1685.

Mrs. Gaunt’s Speech, written the Day before her Sufferings.

Not knowing whether I should be suffered or able, because of Weaknesses that are upon me through my hard and close Imprisonment, to speak at the Place of Execution; I writ these few Lines to signifie, That I am well reconciled to the Way of my God towards me, though it be in Ways I looked not for; and by Terrible Things, yet in Righteousness; having given me Life, he ought to have the disposing of it, when and how he pleases to call for it; and I desire to offer up my AH to him, it being but my reasonable Service; and also the first Terms that Jesus Christ offers, that he that will be his Disciple, must forsake all, and follow all; and therefore let none think hard, or be discouraged at what hath happened at me; for he doth nothing without Cause, in all he hath done to us, he being holy in all his Ways, and righteous in all his Works; and ’tis but my Lot in common with poor desolate Sion at this Day.

Neither do I find in my Heart the least Regret for what I have done in the Service of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in succouring and securing any of his poor Sufferers, that have shewed Favour to his righteous Cause: Which Cause, though now it be fallen and trampled upon, as if it had not been anointed, yet it shall revive, and God will plead it at another Rate than ever he hath done yet, and reckon with all its Opposers and malicious Haters; and therefore let all that love and fear him, not omit the least Duty that comes to Hand, or lyes before them, knowing that now it hath need of them, and expects they shall serve him.

And I desire to bless his holy Name, that he hath made me useful in my Generation to the Comfort and Relief of many Desolate Ones, and the Blessing of those that are ready to perish has come upon me, and being helpt to make the Heart of the Widow to sing. And I bless his holy Name, that in all this, together with what I was charged with, I can approve my Heart to him, that I have done His Will; tho’ it does cross Man’s Will, and the Scriptures that satisfie me are. Isaiah 16. 4, Hide the Outcasts, betray not him that wandereth. And Obad. 13 14, Thou shouldst not have.given up those of his that did escape in the Day of his Distress.

But man says, You shall give them up, or you shall die for it. Now who to obey, judge ye.

So that I have Cause to rejoyce and be exceeding glad, in that I suffer for Righteousness Sake, and that I am accounted worthy to suffer for Well-doing, and that God has accepted any Service from me, which has been done in Sincerity, tho’ mixed with manifold Infirmities, which he hath been pleased for Christ’s Sake to cover and forgive.

And now as concerning my Fact, as it is called, alas it was but a little one, and might well become a Prince to forgive; but he that shews no Mercy, shall find none: And I may say of it in the Language of Jonathan, I did but taste a little Honey, and lo I must die for it. I did but relieve an unworthy, poor, distressed Family, and lo I must die for it.

Well, I desire in the Lamb-like Gospel Spirit to forgive all that are concerned, and to say, Lord, lay it not to their Charge; but I fear he will not: Nay, I believe when he comes to make Inquisition for Blood, it will be found at the Door of the furious Judge; who, because I could not remember Things through my Dauntedness at Burton’s Wife’s and Daughter’s Vileness, and my Ignorance, took Advantage thereat, and would not hear me, when I had called to Mind that which I am sure would have invalidated their Evidence; tho’ he granted something of the same Nature to another, yet denied it to me.

My Blood will also be found at the Door of the unrighteous Jury, who found me Guilty upon the single Oath of an Out-lawed Man; for there was none but his Oath about the Money, who is no legal Witness, though he be pardoned, his Out-lawry not being’ recalled; and also the Law requires two Witnesses in Point of Life: And then about my going with him to the Place mentioned, ’twas by his own Words, before he was Out-lawed, for ’twas two Months after his absconding; and tho’ in a Proclamation, yet not High Treason, as I have heard; so that I am clearly murdered by you.

And also Bloody Mr. A. who has so insatiably hunted after my Life; and though it is no Profit to him, through the ill Will he bore me, left no Stone unturned, as I have Ground to believe, till he brought it to this; and shewed Favour to Burton, who ought to have died for his own Fault, and not bought his own Life with mine; and Capt. R. who is cruel and severe to all under my Circumstances, and did at that Time, without all mercy or Pity, hasten my Sentence, and held up my Hand, that it might be given; all which, together with the Great One of all, by whose Power all these, and a Multitude more of Cruelties are done, I do heartily and freely forgive, as against me; but as it is done in an implacable Mind against the Lord Christ, and his righteous Cause and Followers, I leave it to him who is the Avenger of all such Wrongs, who will tread upon Princes as upon Mortar, and be terrible to the Kings of the Earth: And know this also, that though ye are seemingly fixt, and because of the Power in your Hand, are writing out your Violence, and dealing with a despiteful Hand, because of the old and new Hatred; by impoverishing and every Way distressing of those you have got under you; yet unless you can secure Jesus Christ, and all his Holy Angels, you shall never do your Business, nor your Hands accomplish your Enterprizes; for he will be upon you ere you are aware; and therefore, O that you would be wise, instructed and learn, is the Desire of her that finds no Mercy from you,

Elizabeth Gaunt.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Other Voices,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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1883: James Burton, William Marwood’s last

Add comment August 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.

The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.

James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,

my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)

Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.

Instead, William Marwood ended up with the task.

The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.

Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.

As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.

This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder

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