1721: John Meff

Add comment September 11th, 2015 Headsman

John Meff hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1721 for returning from convict transportation.

If we are to credit the autobiographical account that Meff furnished the Ordinary of Newgate prior to his hanging, it was the last act in an adventuresome life. (Here’s the Ordinary’s account of the execution of Meff with three other men; here’s the Newgate Calendar entry based upon it, and which provides the quotes ensuing in this post.)

“I was born in London of French parents,” Meff begins — Huguenots who had fled Catholic harassment.

Huguenot refugees formed an important part of London’s Spitalfields weavers, and Meff apprenticed in this business until he could hang out his own shingle. But finding business too slow to support his family, he took to a bit of supplementary thieving.

Meff says that he had already once been condemned to death for housebreaking “but, as I was going to the place of execution, the hangman was arrested, and I was brought back to Newgate.”

Certainly the era’s executioners had frequent criminal escapades, but I have not found this remarkable Tyburn interruptus related in any press accounts in the 1710s. It’s possible that Meff is embellishing on the 1718 downfall and execution of hangman John Price — though Price was seized red-handed and not detained in the exercise of his office. This inconsistency has not prevented creation of a wonderful illustration, The Hangman Arrested When Attending John Meff to Tyburn, from this volume.

At any rate, Meff’s sentence was moderated to transportation to the New World, and he says that he “took up a solemn resolution to lead an honest and regular course of life … But this resolution continued but a short time after the fear of death vanished.”

Here Meff’s story really gets colorful — whether to the credit of the unsettled Atlantic economy or to the teller’s gift for embroidery we cannot say.

The ship which carried me and the other convicts was taken by the pirates. They would have persuaded me and some others to sign a paper, in order to become pirates; but we refusing, they put me and eight more ashore on a desert uninhabited land, where we must have perished with hunger, if by good fortune an Indian canoe had not arrived there. We waited till the Indians had gone up the island, and then, getting into the vessel, we sailed from one small island to another, till we reached the coast of America.

Not choosing to settle in any of the plantations there, but preferring the life of a sailor, I shipped myself on board a vessel that carried merchandise from Virginia and South Carolina to Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other of his majesty’s islands. And thus I lived a considerable time; but at last, being over-desirous to see how my wife and children fared inEngland, I was resolved to return at all adventures.

Once back, Meff says, he “quickly fell into my former wicked practices” — as if by gravity, no further explanation ventured. It’s hard not to suspect that he simply managed to escape his American indenture to continue a career in larceny, absent the whole marooned-by-pirates subplot. Men were known to tell tall tales to the Ordinary — who, after all, had their own story to sell the public through the deaths of their charges.

“The narrow escape he had experienced from the gallows ought to have taught him more wisdom than to have returned from transporation before the expiration of his time; but one would think there is a fatality attending the conduct of some men, who seem resolutely bent on their own destruction,” the Newgate Calendar’s entry concludes.

“One truth, however, is certain. It is easy, by a steady adherence to the rules of virtue, to shun that ignominious fate which is the consequence of a breach of the laws of God and our country.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft

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1718: John “Jack Ketch” Price, former hangman

1 comment May 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1718, the former common hangman got a taste of his own medicine.

As the 18th and especially 19th centuries unfolded and executions became more private, orderly and “humane,” the executioner’s office became more subtle and bourgeois. In the early 1700’s, however, it was commonly filled by a character who might just as easily have been on the other end of the rope. And once in a while … they were.

One disreputable character who performed the office for twenty years and more following the Stuart Restoration, Jack Ketch, lent his very name to the position (and its accoutrement — e.g., “Jack Ketch’s knot,” the hangman’s noose).

Our day’s victim, by the Christian name of John Price, was “Jack Ketch” in 1714-1715 until his debts caught up with him, and if the Newgate chronicle be believed wasn’t half-bad at the gig. Alas that he lost the position: his life in every other respect is reported by our sanctimonious interlocutors as one of drunken savagery.*

In such a state a couple of years later, he beat a woman to death during an attempted (or actual) rape at Bunhill Fields, at which location the law compelled him, in the parlance of the times, to “dance with Jack Ketch.” The prospect of hanging concentrated old Ketch’s mind wonderfully on the task of not missing one precious moment that might be spent drinking.

[H]e was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva [i.e., gin] … As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution

One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.

Price/Ketch was not the only public executioner to find himself on the receiving end of his former trade, but he does seem to have the distinction of being the only one who was also gibbeted — his carcass hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway.

Update: John Price’s career narrated by Lucy Inglis of Georgian London in a podcast interview with Early American Crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,The Worm Turns

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