To the memory of the unfortunate
BOSAVERN PEN LEZ
Who finished a Life, generall well reported of,
By a violent and ignominious Death.
He was the Son of a Clergyman,
To whom he was indebted for an Education, which he so wisely improv’d
As to merit the Love and Esteem of all that knew him.
But actuated by Principles, in themselves truly laudable
(When rightly directed, and properly restrain’d)
He was hurried by a Zeal for his countrymen,
And an honest Detestation of Public Stews
(The most certain Bane of Youth, and the Disgrace of Government)
To engage in an Undertaking, which the most Partial cannot defend,
And yet the least Candid must excuse.
For thus indeliberately mixing with Rioters, whom he accidentally met with,
He was condemn’d to die:
And of 400 Persons concerned in the same Attempt, he only suffer’d,
Tho’ neither Principal, nor Contriver.
How well he deserved Life, appears
From his generous Contempt of it, in forbidding a Rescue of himself;
And what Returns he would have made to Royal Clemency,
Had it been extended to him, may fairly be presumed
From his noble Endeavours to prevent the least Affront to that Power,
Which, tho greatly importun’d, refused to save him.
What was denied to his Person, was paid to his Ashes,
By the Inhabitants of St. Clement Danes,
Who order’d him to be interr’d among their Brethren,
Defray’d the Charges of his Funeral,
And thought no Mark of Pity or Respect too much
For this Unhappy Youth,
Whose Death was occasioned by no other Fault
But a too warm Indignation for their Sufferings.
By his sad Example, Reader be admonish’d
Of the many ill Consequences that attend an intemperate Zeal.
Learn hence to respect the Laws — even the most oppressive;
And think thyself happy under that Government
‘That doth truly and indifferently administer Justice,
‘To the Punishment of Wickedness and Vice,
‘And to the Maintenance of God’s True Religion and Virtue.’
On this date in 1749, Bosavern Penlez — surely one of the all-time great names to hang on a gibbet — was put to death to the sorrow of all of England. You know how they say that horse thieves are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses might not be stolen? Bosavern Penlez was hanged that whorehouses might not be torn down by mobs of angry sailors.
(Fourteen other less remarkable folk were hanged for less remarkable crimes at the same time. Just another mass execution day at Tyburn.)
On the first three days of July in 1749, the Strand in London saw a running series of riots after a mob of angry sailors descended on a whorehouse where some of their brethren had been robbed and abused. Those sailors pulled down that bordello and then moved on to the nearby bawdy-houses, eventually also ransacking the Star Tavern owned by a character named Peter Wood.
Gendarmes had to be called out to control the situation (and this done without proper legal authorization), but somehow not the mob’s ringleaders nor its inciters nor its most enthusiastic wreckers wound up in legal jeopardy.
Only two faced death: John Wilson, a journeyman shoemaker. And Bosavern Penlez, a young wig-maker who’d been out drinking in the neighborhood. And both of these seemed to have just been caught up accidentally or opportunistically in events.
They were comprehensively damned by the testimony of Peter Wood, the aggrieved procurer of Star Tavern, and his wife — disreputable people of whom a neighbor remarked, “I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence.” But then, besides the eyewitness testimony, Bosavern Penlez was also apprehended with a bundle of linens he had evidently liberated from the Wood’s devastated cathouse, linens whose source he unconvincingly claimed not to remember. So the picture one has is that Wilson was perhaps little more than a passerby … but Penlez was a distinct, if minor, participant who could more or less be shown to have got himself tanked and treated the mayhem like it was a gift certificate to Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Not exactly saintly but also not a cardinal sin. Public sentiment for these fellows’ clemency was intense, starting right with the jury that convicted them but also recommended mercy.
Only Wilson was spared, however.
According to the Newgate Calendar, George II was mightily disposed to pardon both, but justice John Willes, who heard the case personally, vigorously opposed the royal mercy for “no regard would be paid to the laws except one of them was made an example of.”
Penlez, in the end, was the one made example of.
His hanging this date in 1749 would bleed into an election held later that same autumn, almost dealing a serious setback to the sitting Pelham government. Those events are detailed in Malvin Zirker’s introduction to this out-of-print volume.
And the resultant fusillade of pamphlets and public protests asserting a maximalist take on Penlez’s purity induced novelist Henry Fielding to enter the fray with a manifesto of his own strongly supporting the young man’s execution.
Readers of Fielding’s fiction might start at the rigidity of his editorial line.
Penlez’s defenders couldn’t really argue that he was completely innocent. Still, they contested the justice of the death penalty for such a character whose involvement in the whole thing was so tertiary and happenstance, not to mention influenced by drink. Doubly so that it was attested by the word of such a villain as Peter Wood. In the words of one pro-Penlez polemic, Wood would “run at every one, like a mad Dog, … indifferent who it was he hang’d by his Oath.”
Fanny Hill author John Cleland entered the fray on the side of the accused; his The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez is aghast at “shedding the Blood of this young Man for the Example-sake … such a Severity being too much for the Nature of the Guilt actually chargeable on him, [and] will serve rather to confound and destroy all Ideas of Right and Wrong.”
Penlez was convicted not as a thief — which charge would have given the jury leave to find that the value of his linens amounted to less than the threshold necessary to hang him — but under the Riot Act which directly mandated death for “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace.” Wood’s eyewitness testimony to the effect that Penlez (and Wilson, too) smashed up windows and furniture in his house and threatened him was essential to establishing a part in the tumultuous assembly.*
As this level of guilt was popularly doubted, our friend Henry Fielding — himself the very magistrate** who had engineered the suppression of the disturbance, having returned on the third day of it from a weekend away from London — took up his pen post-hanging to support the government’s handling of Penlez from arrest all the way to the scaffold. His A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez produces the witness accounts sworn before him as magistrate during the riots themselves, and reproves those Penlez supporters whose anger at his execution made the “malefactor” into “an object of sedition, when he is transformed into a hero, and the most merciful prince who ever sat on any throne is arraigned of blameable severity, if not of downright cruelty, for suffering justice to take place.”
If, after perusing the evidence which I have here produced, there should remain any private compassion in the breast of the reader, far be it from me to endeavour to remove it. I hope I have said enough to prove that this was such a riot as called for some example, and that the man [Penlez] who was made that example deserved his fate. Which, if he did, I think it will follow, that more hath been said and done in his favour than ought to have been; and that the clamour of severity against the government hath been in the highest degree unjustifiable.
* The Ordinary of Newgate reported that Penlez, who long remained cagey on the point, admitted in the end entering the bawdy-house during the riot, but disavowed any attack upon its owner. Wilson, for what it’s worth, always denied having entered the house and insisted Wood had misidentified him.
** Henry Fielding was the half-brother of magistrate and policing pioneer John Fielding. The Fieldings’ mutual roles in the creation of London’s first professional investigators to supplant the problematic “thief-taking” system of private, rewards-driven prosecution, is the subject of The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840.