1768: James Gibson and Benjamin Payne, impressing James Boswell

Add comment March 23rd, 2017 James Boswell

(Thanks to James Boswell for the guest post. The Dr. Johnson biographer was a ravenous gallows-haunt whom we have encountered repeatedly in these pages; even in his guise as a barrister, Boswell personally lost a client to the hangman. No fool when it came to content repurposing, Boswell in 1768 wrote the Publick Advertiser about the March 23, 1768 double hanging of John Gibson and Benjamin Payne; then, in 1783, he recycled the entirety of this bygone letter to extend his musings on the spectacle of public executions, for the occasion of Tyburn’s abolition. We reprint here the 1783 article, a comment within a comment, within the very comment that is this dreary site. -ed.)

LONDON MAGAZINE,
FOR MAY, 1783.
THE HYPOCHONDRIACK. No. LXVIII.
Mitiores Poena nobis semper placuere. Justinian., 
'We have always preferred mild punishments.'

THE question, Whether society has a right to punish individuals, especially to the extent of death, which is well denominated in Latin “ultimum supplicium — the last or utmost punishment,” has been treated with great attention and ingenuity by a number of casuists in law and in morals. And of late it has been discussed with elegant ability by the Marquis di Marco, an Italian nobleman of Mantua, whose performance well becomes that celebrated city, while it shews that in modern times the descendants of those whom we are taught from our early years to admire, are yet worthy of admiration. So that we may quote from Addison‘s beautiful letter from Italy,

And still I seem to tread on classick ground.

It is indeed a question which resolves into the powerful and irresistible plea of necessity; since we are sure society could not exist without such a right. But the exercise of it, no doubt, admits of much modification, in which the wisdom and humanity of legislators has a wide field. Another Italian nobleman has done himself great honour by his admirable work “Delle de litte e delle pene,” which Voltaire has illuminated with some additional rays; and I can with pleasure mention, to the credit of our own nation, Mr. Eden‘s Principles of Penal Law.

These cursory remarks are only meant to serve the purpose of introducing into the collection of my Hypochondriack Essays, another of my former writings, which is, I think, well suited to my present title.

April 25, 1768.

To the Printer of the Publick Advertiser

Sir,

THAT the people of England possess that quality called good-nature, will not be denied by any man whose mind is not fretted by some real ills, or clouded by some fanciful ones. But it must also be acknowledged that the people of England are, of all nations in the world, the most desirous of feeing spectacles of cruelty. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and even throwing at cocks, were for many and many a year the delight of the English; and it is not long since assemblies of good-natured people were deliberately held to see their fellow-creatures beat, bruise, and sometimes actually kill each other.

Though the desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty has peculiarly prevailed in England, it has more or less been the passion of mankind in all ages and countries. Hence the various satires against it by poets; hence the various attempts to account for it by philosophers. Lucretius, who was both a poet and a philosopher, refers it to self-love, as we may see from that celebrated passage,

Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.

He thinks that men love to behold scenes of distress, that they may hug themselves in security, and relish more their own safety and ease, by comparing themselves with those who are suffering. Though I, as well as every rational and virtuous man, must think that Lucretius is in general a very false and a very hurtful writer; yet I must candidly own that he is often ingenious and just in his observations. In the present case he certainly has a great deal of merit; though I would be for compounding his system with that of the Abbe du Bos, who accounts for our desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty from the universal wish that we all have to be moved; that is, to have our souls agitated; for to be sure there is nothing so irksome to a man of lively sensations, as to have his faculties thrown into a kind of torpor, so that in Shakespeare’s words,

They cream and mantle like a standing pool

This will more fully account for what I am endeavouring to explains and will make human nature appear not so grossly selfish as Lucretius paints it.

Of all publick spectacles, that of a capital execution draws the greatest number of spectators. And I must confess that I myself am never absent from any of them. Nor can I accuse myself of being more hard-hearted than other people. On the contrary, I am persuaded that nobody feels more sincerely for the distresses of his fellow-creatures than I do, yor would do more to relieve them. When I first attended executions, I was shocked to the greatest degree. I was in a manner convulsed with pity and terror, and for several days, but especially nights after, I was in a very dismal situation. Still, however, I persisted in attending them, and by degrees my sensibility abated; so that I can now see one with great composure, and my mind is not afterwards haunted with frightful thoughts: though for a while a certain degree of gloom remains upon it. I can account for this curiosity in a philosophical manner, when I consider that death is the most aweful object before every man, who ever directs his thoughts seriously towards futurity; and that it is very natural that we should be anxious to see people in that situation which affects us so much. It is true indeed that none of us, who go to see an execution have any idea that we are to be executed, and few of us need be under any apprehension whatever of meeting with that fate. But dying publickly at Tyburn, and dying privately in one’s bed, are only different modes of the fame thing. They are both death; they are both that wonderous, that alarming scene of quitting all that we have ever seen, heard, or known, and at once passing into a state of being totally unknown, to us, and in which we cannot tell what may be our situation. Therefore it is that I feel an irresistible impulse to be present at every execution, as I there behold, the various effects of the near approach of death, according to the various tempers of the unhappy sufferers, and by studying them I learn to quiet and fortify my own mind.

I shall never forget the last execution I saw at Tyburn, when Mr. Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and Benjamin Payne, for an highway robbery, were executed. Poor Payne was a thin young lad of twenty, in a mean dress, and a red night-cap, with nothing to discriminate him from the many miserable beings who are penitent and half dead with fear. But Mr. Gibson was indeed an extraordinary man. He came from Newgate in a coach, with some friends attending him. I met the mournful procession in Oxford-road; and I declare that if I had not been told it, I should not have known which was Mr. Gibson. He was drawn backwards, and looked as calm and easy as ever I saw a man in my life. He was dressed in a full suit of black, wore his own hair round and in a natural curl, and a hat. When he came to the place of execution he was allowed to remain a little in the coach. A signal was then given him that it was time to approach the fatal tree. He took leave of his friends, stepped out of the coach, and walked firmly to the cart. He was helped up upon it, as he was pinioned and had not the free use of his arms. When he was upon the cart, he gave his hat to the executioner, who immediately took off Mr. Gibson’s cravat, unloosed his shirt neck, and fixed the rope. Mr. Gibson never once altered his countenance. He refreshed his mouth by sucking a sweet orange. He shewed no stupid insensibility; nor did he affect to brave it out like those hardened wretches who boast that they die hard. He appeared to all the spectators a man of sense and reflexion, of a mind naturally sedate and placid. He submitted with a manly and decent resolution to what he knew to be the just punishment of the law. Mr. Moore, the Ordinary of Newgate, discharged his duty with much earnestness, and a fervour for which I and all around me esteemed and loved him. Mr. Moore seems worthy of his office, which, when justly considered, is a very important one, if administering divine comfort to multitudes of miserable beings, be important. Poor Payne seemed to rely on that mercy which I trust has not been refused him — Mr. Gibson seemed truely devout; and, in short, from first to last, his behaviour was the most perfect that I ever saw, or indeed could conceive of one in his unhappy circumstances. — I wish, Sir, I may not have detained you too long with a letter on subjects of a serious but I will not fay of a gloomy cast, because from my manner of viewing them I do say that they become matters of curious speculation, and are relieved of their dreary ideas. I am, Sir,

Your constant reader,
MORTALIS.

After an interval of fifteen years, I have little to add to this occasional essay. But I cannot but mention in justification of myself, from a charge of cruelty in having gone so much formerly to see executions, that the curiosity which impels people to be present at such affecting scenes, is certainly a proof of sensibility not of callousness. For it is observed, that the greatest proportion of the spectators is composed of women; and I do not apprehend that my readers will impute a barbarous severity to the fair sex, though it is common for lovers to represent them as metaphorically cruel. But in the one case they are cruel to others to be kind to themselves, by avoiding what is disagreeable to them. Whereas in the other case the pleasure must be from the sufferings of others independent of any such reference. That there, however, is such a pleasure I am afraid is true; and in support of my opinion, I bring no less authority than Edmund Burke, who maintains it in his Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful. Yet let it not be supposed that this pleasure arising from agitation, prevents the finest feelings and effects of compassion; I am sure it does not.

As the great Justinian nobly expressed himself, I should wish that as mild punishments as are consistent with terrour were always inflicted. It is indeed astonishing how men have been found willing and able to execute some of the horrible sentences which have been put in execution upon some criminals. One shudders to think of them; and I shall not wound the minds of my readers by reciting particulars. They who wish to be shocked, or to gratify a monstrous curiosity, may read the tortures of Ravaillac or Damiens. A mode of death which strikes terrour into spectators, without excruciating the unfortunate objects of legal vengeance, seems to be the most eligible. I, therefore, think that the faces of those who are hanged should not be covered, as in Britain, but exposed, as is the custom upon the continent, that the distortions may be seen, which covered or uncovered must take place. I also think that the punishment of throwing criminals from the Tarpeian rock in ancient Rome was a very judicious one. But the best I have ever discovered is one practised in Modern Rome, which is called Macellare — to butcher.” The criminal is placed upon a scaffold, and the executioner knocks him on the head with a great iron hammer, then cuts his throat with a large knife, and lastly, hews him in pieces with an ax; in short, treats him exactly like an ox in the shambles. The spectators are struck with prodigious terrour; yet the poor wretch who is stunned into insensibility by the blow, does not actually suffer much.

But, indeed, death, simple death, when slowly and solemnly inflicted, will be fully sufficient to answer the purposes of publick punishment, as is very well demonstrated by Dr. Mandeville, in An Essay upon the Increase of Robberies, in which he has written with a very different spirit from that which prompted his very shrewd, lively, and entertaining, but dangerous Fable of the Bees.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lawyers,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento

1 comment August 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.

According to Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, all three had been condemned to death under the brand-new state‘s brand-new Criminal Practices Act, making theft a capital offense.

They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.

Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**

The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.

The Executions in Sacramento City

The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.

We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.

THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.

Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …

As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …

The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.

The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.

A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.

While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …

The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”

The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.

The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.

Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.

After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.

* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.

** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Public Executions,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Calendar

November 2019
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!