1751: William Parsons, Grub Street fodder

Add comment February 11th, 2018 Headsman

We return for this post to a hanging we have previously attended, an uncommonly interesting February 11, 1751 dectuple execution at Tyburn.

Hulking pugilist turned Hogarth allegory James Field was one featured attraction in this batch; the other was the Eton-educated, dissolute son of a baronet, one William Parsons.


This is considerably higher society than a baronet, but we don’t need much excuse hereabouts for a Barry Lyndon tribute.

In the broadest strokes he was the sort of parasitic failson whom the more common stock have long loved to detest, his dissipation having seen him first disinherited, then sent abroad with the Royal Navy (he washed out), then rescuing his situation with a favorable marriage and an army appointment before “the extravagant manner in which he lived, and the loss of large sums of money in gambling, compelled him to throw up his commission, and to return … to his country, a beggar and a vagabond.”

Sentenced by a lenient court to the hard New World frontier of Maryland, Parsons leveraged his family’s good name to escape almost immediately from the drudgery of indentured servitude and risked a return to the mother country where he took to the roads to espouse the classic profession of the embarrassed gentleman, and made men stand and deliver.

It sufficed in the end to recognize him returned from transportation to secure his condemnation, at which Parsons excites the loathing of contemporaries and posterity alike by making bold to beg mercy of his judge “in regard to the family to which I belong, who never had a blot in their escutcheon.” Escutcheon this.

In the scheme of things, his career of self-destruction makes the man nothing but a minor malefactor. However, at least for a season his precipitation — because nine Britons in ten would have looked with envy on his situation even as a disinherited ensign or for that matter as a man with the pull to self-parole from penal transportation — made for the sort of morality play ideally suited to the mass print culture burgeoning in the gallows’ shade.

As we have previously noted in an Irish context, the scrabbling biographers of the latest doomed criminal themselves forever arrived at loggerheads, their rival pamphlets chasing preeminence in authority and rapidity before yesterday’s outrage could be displaced in the public memory by tomorrow’s.

The institutional voice of this racket was of course the Ordinary of Newgate, who by this point had for decades been gobbling up publishing residuals thanks to his didactic and ever more embroidered Ordinary’s Accounts. His entry for February 11, 1751 is a fine exemplar of the genre, running to 19 pages of which the last two are taken up with revenue-pumping advertisements.* With apologies to James Field, the Parsons narrative entirely overawes that of his nine fellow-sufferers, with six full pages devoted to lovingly reminiscing this one man’s tragedy.

Among those lines, we find our divine has relaxed his focus on the salvation of his patients long enough to throw an elbow in the direction of the independent hustlers who will be contesting the marketplace against the Ordinary’s own forthcoming Parsons biography.

N. B. If a certain independent Teacher, or any one else intends to print a Life of Parsons write by himself, take Care left he has imposed upon your Credulity, as he has done to all that had any Thing to do with him.

The “teacher” referenced here is probably Grub Street hack Christopher Smart, who had abandoned a praelectorship at Pembroke College for the charms of movable type … but it’s likely the Ordinary merely selected this allusion because his happened to be the flashiest brand at that moment among the scabrous-broadsheet set, like a present-day critic might metonymize media with the name of Rupert Murdoch.** Richard Ward has argued in his Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London that this moment occurs amid an “explosion in printed crime reporting in London in the years 1748-55 … created in large part by [publishers’] efforts to generate and sustain public interest in crime.”

The Rev. John Taylor would indeed like any self-respecting scribe collect a second purse on his prose by recycling his Ordinary’s Account version (prepended with the trial transcript) into a distinct standalone publication — “The Trial and Remarkable Life of William Parsons” &c., which Taylor authenticates on the title plate with the notation, “Publish’d by the Minister who attended him while under Sentence of Death, and at the Place of Execution”.

We have nothing like an exhaustive catalogue of the print ephemera swarming Old Blighty in those days, but at least one rival publisher attempted to “impose upon the Credulity” of Parsons gawkers. Francis Stamper’s† “Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of William Parsons, Esq.” claims to have been “Written by Himself [i.e., Parsons], and Corrected (with Additions) at his own Request by a Gentleman.” It runs upwards of 60 picaresque pages.

In a like vein is “A Genuine, Impartial, and Authentick Account of the Life of William Parsons, Esq.” &c. promulgated by Thomas Parker, a regular haunt of the Old Bailey crime blotter; however, close readers might notice that Parker is also one of the publishers of the Ordinary’s Accounts‡ and for that reason his edition is presumably more commercially congenial to that clergyman. Parker promises besides the expected biography a trove of correspondence to and from Parsons in the dungeons — we might well suspect whose hand has procured it — a good deal of which is taken up in Parsons imposing pleas for intercession upon a friendly earl, on his prosecutor, and upon his family to pull whatever strings they might.

* One of those ads hyped publication of “A COMPLEAT HISTORY OF JAMES MACLEAN, The GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN”; that man had just hanged four months previous. This volume went abroad under the imprimatur of Charles Corbett, who shared with Thomas Parker the contract to publish the Ordinary’s Accounts.

** A satirical poem called “Old Woman’s Dunciad”, itself a travesty of Pope’s “Dunciad”, was in those weeks burning up the London bestseller lists. Smart is targeted for satire in the poem but was also suspected to be the author. In fact, it was the work of another knight of the low literature called William Kenrick — but both Kenrick and Smart intentionally muddied the authorship lurking behind the pen name “Mary Midnight”, which both men employed. (For context on the dizzying 1750-1751 publishing scene, see Christopher Smart: Clown of God.)

† Stamper was a collaborator of William Kenrick’s (see preceding footnote).

‡ Look for it on the first page of the Ordinary’s Account: “Printed for, and sold by T. PARKER, in Jewin-street, and C. CORBETT, over-against St. Dunstan’s Church, in Fleet-street, the only authorised Printers of the Dying Speeches.” This notice is to be found repeatedly in Ordinary’s Accounts of the period; moreover, Corbett and Parker sometimes advertise their potboilers in those same accounts, in language that makes explicit their alliance with the Ordinary. For example, we have this from the March 23, 1752 Account:

In a Few Days will be Published, The Only Genuine and Authentic NARRATIVE OF THE PROCEEDINGS Of the Late Capt. LOWREY, Both before and after he became Commander of the Ship MOLLY: As the same was delivered by himself, in Manuscript, into the Hands of the Rev. Mr. TAYLOR, Ordinary of NEWGATE, some short Time before his Execution.

Printed only for T. PARKER, in JEWIN-STREET, AND C. CORBETT, in FLEET-STREET.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

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1621: John Rowse, unnatural father

Add comment June 2nd, 2017 John Taylor

(Thanks for the guest post to Thames boatman and picaresque pamphleteer John Taylor, the self-described “Water Poet”. Taylor has a minor cottage industry of social historians devoted to his varied output, like one of the first credited palindromes, “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel” … which would exactly suit John Rowse, the early modern sybarite turned murderer whom the Water Poet favored with the prose below, under the original title of “The Unnatural Father.” We’ve filled in wiktionary links to some of the more interesting archaic usages here; for the writer’s rich supply of loose-women synonyms please consult the Dungeons & Dragons random harlot table. — ed.)

As a chain consists of divers links, and every link depends, and is invoked upon one another, even so our sins, being the chain wherewith Satan doth bind and manacle us, are so knit, twisted, and soldered together, that without our firm faith ascending, and God’s grace descending, we can never be freed from those infernal fetters; for sloth is linked with drunkenness, drunkenness with fornication and adultery, and adultery with murder, and so of all the rest of the temptations, suggestions, and actions, wherewith miserable men and women are insnared and led captive into perpetual perdition, except the mercy of our gracious God be our defence and safeguard.

For a lamentable example of the devil’s malice, and man’s misery; this party, of whom I treat at this time, was a wretch, not to be matched, a fellow not to be fellowed, and one that scarce hath an equal, for matchless misery, and unnatural murder. But to the matter.

This John Rowse being a fishmonger in London, gave over his trade and lived altogether in the town of Ewell, near Nonsuch, in the county of Surrey, ten miles from London, where he had land of his own for himself and his heirs for ever to the valne of fifty pounds a year, with which he lived in good and honest fashion, being well reputed of all his neighbours, and in good estimation with gentlemen and others that dwelt in the adjoining villages.

Until at the last he married a very honest and comely woman, with whom he lived quietly and in good fashion some six months, till the devil sent an instrument of his to disturb their matrimonial happiness; for they wanting a maidservant, did entertain into their house a wench, whose name was Jane Blundell, who in short time was better acquainted with her master’s bed than honesty required, which in time was found out and known by her mistress, and brake the peace, in such sort, between the said Rowse and his wife, that in the end, after two year’s continuance, it brake the poor woman’s heart, that she died and left her husband a widower, where he and his whore were the more free to use their cursed contentments, and ungodly embracements.

Yet that estate of being unmarried, was displeasing to him, so that he took to wife another woman, who for her outward feature, and inward qualities was every way fit for a very honest man, although it were her hard fortune to match otherwise.

With this last wife of his he lived much discontented, by reason of his keeping his lewd trull in his house, so that by his daily riot, excessive drinking and unproportionable spending, his estate began to be much impoverished, much of his land mortgaged and forfeited, himself above two hundred pounds indebted, and in process of time to be, as a lewd liver, of all his honest neighbours rejected and contemned.

His estate and credit being almost past recovery wasted and impaired, he forsook his wife, came up to London with his wench, where he fell into a new league with a corrupted friend; who, as he said, did most courteously cozen him of all that ever he had, and whom at this time I forbear to name, because it was John Rowse his request before his execution, that he should not be named in any book or ballad, but yet upon a die his name may be picked out betwixt a Cinq and a Trois. This false friend of his, as he said, did persuade him to leave his wife for altogether, and did lodge and board him and his paramour certain weeks in his house, and afterward caused him and her to be lodged, having changed his name, as man and wife in an honest man’s house near Bishops-gate, at Bevis Marks.

Where they continued so long, till his money was gone, as indeed he never had much; but now and then small petty sums from his secret friend aforesaid, and he being fearful to be smooked out by his creditors, was counselled to leave his country and depart for Ireland. And before his going over sea, his friend wrought so, that all his land was made over in trust to him, and bonds, covenants, and leases made, as fully bought and sold for a sum of two hundred and threescore pounds. Of all which money the said Rowse did take the Sacrament at his death, that he never did receive one penny, but he said now and then he had five or ten shillings at a time from his said friend, and never above twenty shillings. And all that ever he had of him, being summed together, was not above three and twenty pounds, the which moneys his friend did pay himself out of his rents. But some more friend to him, than he was to himself, did doubt that he was cheated of his land; whereupon, to make all sure, he said that his false friend did so far prevail with him, that he the said Rowse took an oath in the open court at Westminster Hall, that he had lawfully sold his land, and had received the sum above said, in full satisfaction and payment, and his said friend did vow and protest many times unto him, with such oaths, and vehement curses, that he never would deceive his trust, but that at any time when he would command all those forged bonds and leases, that he would surrender them unto him, and that he should never be damnified by them or him, to the value of one half penny. Upon which protestations, he said, he was enticed to undo himself out of all his earthly possessions, and by a false oath to make hazard of his inheritance in heaven.

In Ireland he staid not long, but came over again, and was by his friend persuaded to go into the low countries; which he did, never minding his wife and two small children which he had by her, having likewise a brace of bastards by his whore, as some say, but he said that but one of them was of his begetting. But he, after some stay in Holland, saw that he could not fadge there, according to his desire and withal, suspecting that he was cheated of his land, and above all, much perplexed in his conscience for the false oath that he had taken, pondering his miserable estate, and rueing his unkindness to his wife, and unnatural dealing to his children, thinking with himself what course were best to take to help himself out of so many miseries which did incompass him, he came over again into England to his too dear friend, demanding of him his bonds and leases of his land which he had put him in trust withal. But then his friend did manifest himself what he was, and told him plainly, that he had no writings, nor any land of his, but what he had dearly bought and paid for. All which, Rowse replied unto him, was false, as his own conscience knew. Then said the other, have I not here in my custody your hand and seal to confirm my lawful possession of your land? and moreover, have I not a record of an oath in open court, which you took concerning the truth of all our bargain? And seeing that I have all these especial points of the law, as an oath, indentures, and a sure possession, take what course you will, for I am resolved to hold what I have.

These, or the like words, in effect passed betwixt Rowse and his friend, trusty Roger, which entering at his ears, pierced his heart like daggers; and being out of money and credit, a man much infamous for his bad life, indebted beyond all possible means of payment, a perjured wretch to cozen himself, having no place or means to feed or lodge, and fearful of being arrested, having so much abused his wife, and so little regarded his children, being now brought to the pit’s brim of desperation, not knowing amongst these calamities which way to turn himself, he resolved at last to go home to Ewell again to his much wronged wife for his last refuge in extremity.

The poor woman received him with joy, and his children with all gladness welcomed home the prodigal father, with whom he remained in much discontentment and perplexity of mind. The devil still tempting him to mischief and despair, putting him in mind of his former better estate, comparing pleasures past with present miseries; and he revolving that he had been a man in that town, had been a gentleman’s companion of good reputation and calling, that he had friends, lands, money, apparel, and credit, with means sufficient to have left for the maintenance of his family, and that now he had nothing left him but poverty and beggary, and that his two children were like to be left to go from door to door for their living.

Being thus tormented and tossed with restless imaginations, he seeing daily to his further grief, the poor case of his children, and fearing that worse would befall them hereafter, he resolved to work some means to take away their languishing lives by a speedy and untimely death, the which practice of his, by the devil’s instigation and assistance, he effected as followeth.

To be sure that nobody should stop or prevent his devilish enterprise, he sent his wife to London on a frivolous errand for a riding coat; and she being gone somewhat timely and too soon in the morning, both her children being in bed and fast asleep, being two very pretty girls, one of the age of six years, and the other four years old, none being in the house but themselves, their unfortunate father and his ghostly counsellor, the doors being fast locked; he having an excellent spring of water in the cellar of his house, which to a good mind that would have employed it well would have been a blessing, for the water is that of crystalline purity and clearness, that Queen Elizabeth of famous memory would daily send for it for her own use, in which he purposed to drown his poor innocent children sleeping. For he going into the chamber where they lay, took the youngest of them named Elizabeth forth of her bed and carried her down the stairs into his cellar, and there put her in the spring of water, holding down her head under that pure element with his hands, till at last the poor harmless soul and body parted one from another.

Which first act of this his inhuman tragedy being ended, he carried the dead corpse up three pair of stairs, and laying it down on the floor, left it, and went down into the chamber where his other daughter named Mary was in bed; being newly awakened, and seeing her father, demanded of him where her sister was? To whom he made answer that he would bring her where she was. So taking her in his arms he carried her down towards the cellar, and as he was on the cellar stairs she asked him what he would do, and whither he would carry her? Fear nothing, my child, quoth he, I will bring thee up again presently; and being come to the spring, as before he had done with the other, so he performed the last unfatherly deed upon her; and to be as good as his word, carried her up the stairs and laid her by her sister. That done, he laid them out and covered them both with a sheet, walking up and down his house weeping and lamenting his own misery and his friend’s treachery, that was the main ground of all his misfortunes and the death of his children; and though there was time and opportunity enough for him to fly, and to seek for safety, yet the burthen and guilt of his conscience was so heavy to him, and his desperate case was so extreme, that he never offered to depart, but as a man weary of his life, would, and did stay, till such time as ho was apprehended and sent to prison, where he lay till he was rewarded with a just deserved death.

What his other intents were after be had drowned his children is uncertain, for he drew his sword and laid it naked on a table, and after he gat a poor woman down into the cellar, and in the same place where the two infants lost their lives, he did help the woman to wring a buck of his clothes, and then he requested her to help to convey his goods out of his house, for he said that be feared that the sheriff of Surrey would come and seize upon all. But the woman not thinking of any of the harm that was done, imagined that he had meant that his goods would be seized for debt and not for murder.

But to return to the miserable mother of the murdered children, she said that her heart throbbed all the day, as fore-boding some heavy mischance to come; and having done her business that she came about to London, as soon as she came home she asked for her children, to whom her husband answered that they were at a neighbour’s house in the town. Then said she, I will go thither to fetch them home. No, quoth he, I will go myself presently for them. Then said his wife, let the poor woman that is here go and bring them home. But at last she saw such delay was used, she was going herself, then her husband told her that he had sent them to a kinsman’s of his at a village called Sutton, four miles from Ewell, and that he provided well for them, and prayed her to be contented and fear nothing for they were well. These double tales of his made her to doubt somewhat was amiss, therefore she entreated him for God’s sake to tell her truly where they were. Whereupon he said, “If you will needs know where they are, go but up the stairs into such a chamber and there you shall find them. But in what a lamentable perplexity of mind the poor woman was when she perceived how and which way they lost their lives, any Christian that hath an heart of flesh may imagine. Presently the constable was sent for, who took him into his custody, who amongst other talk, demanded of him why and how he could commit so unnatural a fact as to murder his children? To whom he answered that he did it because he was not able to keep them, and that he was loth they should go about the town a begging; and moreover, that they were his own, and being so, that he might do what he would with them, and that they had their lives from him, and therefore he had taken their lives from them, and was contented to lose his life for them; for he was sure that their miseries were past, and for his part, he had an assured hope to go to them, though they could not come to him.

So being had before justice his examination was very brief, for he confessed all the whole circumstances of the matter freely, so that he was sent to the common prison of Surrey called the White Lion, where he remained fourteen or fifteen weeks a wonderful penitent prisoner, never, or very seldom, being without a bible or some other good book meditating upon; and when any one did but mention his children, he would fetch a deep sigh and weep, desiring every one to pray for him; and upon his own earnest request, he was prayed for at Paul’s Cross, and at most of the churches in London, and at many in the country, and at the Sessions holden at Croydon the latter end of June last. He made such free confession at the bar, declaring the manner of his life, his odious drinking, his abominable whoring, his cruel murder, and the false dealing of his deceitful friend, which was the cause of his final wreck, with which relations of his pronounced with such vehemency and protestations, he moved all that heard him to commiseration and pity.

So according to law and justice, he was there condemned and judged for the murdering of his two children to be hanged; which judgment was executed on him at the common gallows at Croydon, on Monday the second day of June, 1621, where he died with great penitency and remorse of conscience.

This was the lamentable end of John Rowse, a man of the age of fifty years, and one that might have lived and died in better fashion, if he had laid hold on the grace of heaven, and craved God’s protection and fatherly assistance. But of all that herein is declared, this one thing which I now declare, is most lamentable and remarkable, which is that Ewell being a market town not much above ten miles from London, in a Christian kingdom, and such a kingdom where the all-saving Word of the ever-living God is most diligently, sincerely, and plentifully preached; and yet amidst this diligence, as it were in the circle or centre of his sincerity, and in the flood of this plenty, the town of Ewell hath neither preacher nor pastor. For although the parsonage be able to maintain a sufficient preacher, yet the living being in a layman’s hand, is rented out to another for a great sum, and yet no preacher maintained there. Now the chief landlord out of his portion doth allow but seven pounds yearly for a reader, and the other that doth hire the parsonage at a great rent doth give the said reader four pounds the year more out of his means and courtesy. And by this means the town is served with a poor old man that is half blind, and by reason of his age can scarcely read. For all the world knows that so small a stipend cannot find a good preacher, books, and very hardly bread to live on; so that the poor souls dwelling there are in danger of famishing for want of a good preacher to break the Bread of Life unto them. For a sermon amongst them is as rare as warm weather in December or ice in July; both which I have seen in England though but seldom.

And as the wolf is most bold with the sheep when there is either no shepherd or an impotent, insufficient one, so the devil perhaps took his advantage of this wretched man, seeing he was so badly guarded and so weakly guided to withstand his force and malice; for where God is least known and called upon, there Satan hath most power and domination. But howsoever, I wish with all my heart, that that town and many more were better provided than they are, and then such numbers of souls would not be in hazard to perish; nor so many sufficient scholars that can preach and teach well, live in penury through want of maintenance. I could run further upon this point, but that I shortly purpose to touch it more to the quick in another book.

By this man’s fall we may see an example of God’s justice against drunkenness, whoredom and murder. The devil being the first author, who was a murderer from the beginning; who filled Cain with envy that he murdered his brother Abel; who tempted David first to adultery and afterwards to murder; who provoked Herod to cause the blessed servant of God, John Baptist, to lose his head, because he told him it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife; and who was the provoker of the aforesaid Herod to murder all the innocent male children in his kingdom. And let us but mark and consider the plagues and punishments that God hath inflicted upon murderers, adulterers, and incestuous persons. First Cain, although by his birth he was the first man that ever was born, a prince by his birth, and heir apparent to all the world, yet for the murder by him committed on his brother, he was the first vagabond and runagate on the face of the earth, almost fearful of his own shadow; and after he had lived a long time terrified in conscience, was himself slain, as is supposed, by Lamech, Simeon, and Levi. The sons of Jacob were accursed of their Father for the slaughter of the Sichemites; Joab, the captain of David’s host, was slain for the murdering of Abner; David himself, for the death of Urias and the adultery committed with Bethsheba, was continually plagued and vexed with the sword of war, with the rebellion of his own sons, and with the untimely deaths of Amnon and Absalom. Banuah and Rechab, for the slaying of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, they were both by David’s commandment put to death, who had both their hands and feet cut off, and were afterwards hanged over the Pool in Hebron, (Samuel 2. 4.) The examples are infinite out of divine and human histories, that God did never suffer murder to go unrewarded; and this miserable man, of whom I have here related, is a most manifest spectacle of God’s revenging vengeance for that crying and heinous sin.

As concerning lust and incontinency, it is a short pleasure bought with long pain, a honeyed poison, a gul of shame, a pickpurse, a breeder of diseases, a gall to the conscience, a corrosive to the heart, turning man’s wit into foolish madness, the body’s bane and the soul’s perdition. It is excessive in youth and odious in age, besides God himself doth denounce most fearful threats against fornicators and adulterers, as the apostle saith, that whoremongers and adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven, (1 Cor. 6. 9). And God himself saith, that he will be a swift witness against adulterers, (Mal. 3. 5). And the wise man saith, that because of the whorish woman, a man is brought to a morsel of bread, and a woman will hunt for the precious life of a man; for saith he, can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burnt 1 or can a man go up on hot coals, and his feet not be burnt? So he that goeth into his neighbour’s wife, shall not be innocent, (Prov. 6, 27, 28, 29). Abimeleoh, one of the sons of Gideon, murdered three-score and ten of his brethren, and in reward thereof, by the just judgment of God, a woman with a piece of a millstone beat out his brains, after he had usurped the kmgdom three years (Judges 9th). Our English chronicles make mention that Roger Mortimer, Lord Baron of Wallingford, murdered his master, King Edward the second, and caused the King’s uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, causelessly to be beheaded; but God’s justice overtook him at last, so that for the said murders he was shamefully executed. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in the Abbey of Bury by William de la Poole, Duke of Suffolk, who afterwards was beheaded himself on the sea by a pirate. Arden of Faversham, and Page of Plymouth, both their murders are fresh in memory, and the fearful ends of their wives and their aiders in those bloody actions will never be forgotten.

It is too manifestly known what a number of stepmothers and strumpets have most inhumanly murdered their children, and for the same have most deservedly been executed. But in the memory of man, nor scarcely in any history, it is not to be found, that a father did ever take two innocent children out of their beds, and with weeping tears of pitiless pity and unmerciful mercy, to drown them, showing such compassionate cruelty and sorrowful sighing, remorseless remorse in that most unfatherly and unnatural deed.

All which may be attributed to the malice of the devil, whose will and endeavour is that none should be saved who lays out his traps and snares, entangling some with lust, some with covetousness, some with ambition, drunkenness, envy, murder, sloth or any vice whereto he sees a man or a woman most inclined unto, as he did by this wretched man lulling him, as it were, in the cradle of sensuality and ungodly delight, until such time as all his means, reputation, and credit was gone, and nothing left him but misery and reproach. Then he leads him along through doubts and fears to have no hope in God’s providence, persuading his conscience that his sins were unpardonable, and his estate and credit unrecoverable.

With these suggestions he led him on to despair, and in desperation to kill his children and make shipwreck of his own soul, in which the diligence of the devil appeareth, that he labours and travels incessantly; and as Saint Bernard saith, in the last day shall rise in condemnation against us, because he hath ever been more diligent to destroy souls than we have been to save them. And for a conclusion, let us beseech God of his infinite mercy to defend us from all the subtle temptations of Satan.


JOHN ROWSE his prayer for pardon of his lewd life, which he used to pray in the time of his imprisonment.

God of my soul and body, have mercy upon me; the one I have cast away by my folly, and the other is likely to perish in thy fury, unless in thy great mercy thou save it. Sly sins are deep seas to drown me; I am swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of my own transgressions. With Cain I have been a murderer, and with Judas a betrayer of the innocent. My body is a slave to Satan, and my wretched soul is devoured up by hell. Black have been my thoughts, and blacker are my deeds. I have been the devil’s instrument, and am now become the scorn of men; a serpent upon earth, and an outcast from heaven. What therefore can become of me, miserable caitiff? If I look to my Redeemer, to him I am an arch-traitor, if upon earth, it is drowned with blood of my shedding, if into hell, there I see my conscience burning in the brimstone lake. God of my soul and body have mercy therefore upon; save me, O save me, or else I perish for ever. I die for ever in the world to come, unless, sweet Lord, thou catchest my repentant soul in thine arms. O save me, save me, save me.


JOHN ROWSE of Ewell, his own arraignment, confession, condemnation, and judgment of himself whilst he lay prisoner in the White Lion, for drowning of his two children.

I am arraign’d at the black dreadful bar,
Where sins, so red as scarlet, judges are;
All my indictments are my horrid crimes,
Whose story will affright succeeding times,
As, now, they drive the present into wonder,
Making men tremble as trees struck with thunder.

If any asks what evidence comes in?
O ’tis my conscience, which hath ever been
A thousand witnesses: and now it tells
A tale, to cast me to ten thousand hells.

The jury are my thoughts, upright in this,
They sentence me to death for doing amiss:
Examinations more there need not then,
Than what’s confess’d here both to God and men.

That crier of the court is my black shame,
Which when it calls my jury doth proclaim,
Unless, as they are summon’d, they appear,
To give true verdict of the prisoner,
They shall have heavy fines upon them set,

Such, as may make them die deep in heaven’s debt;
About me round sit and innocence and truth,
As clerks to this high court; and little Ruth
From peoples eyes is cast upon my face,
Because my facts are barbarous, damn’d and base.

The officers that ’bout me, thick, are plac’d,
To guard me to my death, when I am cast,
Are the black stings my speckled soul now feels,
Which like to furies dog me, close at heels.
The hangman that attends me, is despair,
And gnawing worms my fellow-prisoners are.

His Indictment for Murder of his Children.

The first who, at this Sessions, loud doth call me
Is murder, whose grim visage doth appal me;
His eyes are fires, his voice rough wind out-roars,
And on my head the Divine vengeance scores;
So fast and fearfully I sink to ground,
And wish I were in twenty oceans drownd.

He says, I have a bloody villain been,
And, to prove this, ripe evidence steps in,
Brow’d like myself, justice so brings about,
That black sins still hunt one another out;
‘Tis like a rotten frame ready to fall,
For one main post being shaken, pulls down all.

To this indictment, holding up my hand,
Fettered with terrors more than irons stand,
And being asked what to the bill I say,
Guilty, I cry. O dreadful Sessions day!

His Judgment

For these thick Stygian streams in which th’ast sworn,
Thy guilt hath on thee laid this bitter doom;
Thy loath’d life on a tree of shame must take
A leave compelled by law, e’er old age make
Her signed pass-port ready. Thy offence
No longer can for days on earth dispense.
Time blot thy name out of this bloody roll,
And so the Lord have mercy on my soul.

His speech what he could say for himself.

O wretched caitiff! what persuasive breath,
Can call back this just sentence of quick death?
I beg no boon, but mercy at God’s hands,
The King of Kings, the Sovereign that commands
Both soul and body, O let him forgive
My treason to his throne, and whilst I live,
Jibbets and racks shall torture limb by limb,
Through worlds of deaths I’ll break to fly to him.
My birth-day gave not to my mother’s womb,
More ease, than this shall joys, whene’er it come.
My body mould to earth, sins sink to hell,
My penitent soul win heaven, vain world farewell.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1774: Peter Galwin, pedophile, and John Taylor, zoophile

Add comment December 5th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1774, Peter Galwin and John Taylor were hanged together in Burlington in New Jersey.

Galwin was the principal of a small school in Northampton Township with a hankering for prepubescent children. According to court documents, Galwin raped or attempted to rape four young girls on four separate occasions in July and August 1774: Ann Prosser, Hope Reeves, Sarah Deacon and Ann Jones, all of them “infants under the age of ten years.”

The assault caused “great damage” to Ann Jones in particular. Whether or not the victims were his students is not known.

The crimes of John Taylor, alias John Philip Snyder, were still more exotic.

An itinerant farmhand, he allegedly stole money, “two items of female intimate apparel” and other items from his employer, a widow named Orpha Emlay, on August 13, 1774. She suspected him of the theft but lacked proof, so she decided to spy on him.

Daniel Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963, describes what happened six weeks later:

She wound up getting more than just an eyeful on the afternoon of October 2, 1774. It was then that the wary woman peeked into her barn and saw Taylor committing an act of gross indecency with a cow. Appalled, Emlay presumably let out a shriek because Taylor heard her. The naked pervert chased her down while brandishing a knife and a hammer. He smashed Emlay’s skull and slit her throat from ear to ear.

Understandably, public outrage against both offenders ran high in the community. Hearn notes that guards had to “prevent enraged onlookers from tearing both men apart before they reached the gallows.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New Jersey,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex,USA

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1951: The first four of the Martinsville seven

2 comments February 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first of two batches comprising the “Martinsville Seven” — black, all — went to the Virginia electric chair for gang-raping a white woman. (The remainder were executed on Feb. 5)


Newspaper scan (click for larger image) via Mr. Beaverhousen (cc).

Somewhat forgotten today, the Martinsville Seven were in their day the locus of radical activism against Jim Crow in the South — very much like Willie McGee, who was put to death in Louisiana later that same year.

In fact, this case generated a bit of a legal milestone: a month before the executions began, the U.S. Supreme Court declined an appeal seeking relief on the then-novel grounds of equal protection — rather than due process.

The argument was that the Old Dominion’s superficially race-neutral rape statute was anything but; that argument was buttressed by data showing that Virginia had executed 45 black men for raping white women from 1908 to 1950, but never once in that period executed any white man for raping a black woman. (The high court only declined to take the appeal; it wouldn’t get around to explicitly ruling equal protection claims based on racial patterns out of bounds until 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp.)

This seems to be the debut use for this gambit, bound to become an increasingly powerful one both in and out of the courtroom during the civil rights movement.

And it was available — and necessary — here because the Martinsville Seven basically looked guilty as sin. Their confessions and the victim’s accusation and the testimony of a young eyewitness said that, drink-addled, they had opportunistically grabbed a white Jehovah’s Witness housewife when she was proselytizing on the wrong side of the tracks.

Eric Rise, author of The Martinsville Seven: Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment, noted in a scholarly article,*

certain striking characteristics distinguished the proceedings from classic “legal lynchings.” The evidence presented at trial clearly proved that nonconsensual sexual intercourse with the victim had taken place. All seven defendants admitted their presence at the scene, and although some of the men may not have actually consummated the act … The prosecution emphasized the preservation of community stability, not the protection of southern womanly virtues, as the dominant concern of Martinsville’s white citizens. Most significant, the trial judge made a concerted effort to mute the racial overtones of the trials. Although white juries decided each case, blacks appeared in every jury pool. Race-baiting by prosecutors and witnesses, notably evident at Scottsboro and other similar trials, was absent from the Martinsville proceedings. By diligently adhering to procedural requirements, the court attempted to try the case “as though both parties were members of the same race.”**

The standard playbook for fighting a “legal lynching” case was leveraging outrage over a plausibly innocent convict and an outrageous kangaroo court.†

Paradoxically, by taking these elements out of the mix (relatively speaking), the Martinsville Seven perfectly isolated the extreme harshness of the penalty and the structural discrimination under which it was imposed. The NAACP took up the case on appeal strictly for its discriminatory characteristics, steering for its part completely clear of any “actual innocence” argument.

These challenges posed discomfiting questions that jurists shrank away from. The Virginia Supreme Court, in denying an equal protection application, fretted that actual legal relief could mean that “no Negroes could be executed unless a certain number of white people” were, too. Timeless.

Though a later U.S. Supreme Court would completely overturn death-sentencing for rape, based in part on its overwhelming racial slant, justices have generally avoided meddling to redress broad statistical patterns rather than identifiable process violations specific to particular cases.

Those questions of substantive — rather than merely procedural — equality in the justice system remain potently unresolved, still part of Americans’ lived experience of the law from death row to the drug war to driving while black. As if to underscore the point in this instance, just two days prior to the first Martinsville executions, the Wall Street bankster acting as American proconsul in conquered Germany pardoned imprisoned Nazi industrialist Alfried Krupp, and restored him to the fortune he had amassed working Jewish slaves to death during the war. It was a very particular quality of mercy the U.S. showed the world in those days. (The Martinsville case was known, and protested, worldwide.)

Carol Steiker (she used to clerk for liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer worked on the Martinsville case) argues‡ that the Martinsville Seven’s legacy is linked to their later obscurity, for “[t]heir attempt to present statistical proof of discrimination in capital sentencing represents a ‘road not taken'” — neither in 1951, nor since.

The road taken instead had Joe Henry Hampton, 22, Howard Hairston, 21, Booker Millner, 22 and Frank Hairston, 19 electrocuted one by one this morning in 1951. Their three co-accused, John Clabon Taylor, 24, James Luther Hairston, 23, and Francis DeSales Grayson, 40, followed them on February 5.

* “Race, Rape, and Radicalism: The Case of the Martinsville Seven, 1949-1951” in The Journal of Southern History, Aug., 1992.

** This quote an actual trial admonishment of the judge, Kennon Whittle.

† Graded on a curve: this is still Jim Crow Virginia. Six trials were wrapped up at warp speed in 11 days, with a total of 72 jurors — each one white. The implied comparison is something along the lines of, all seven tried together in the course of an afternoon, with a good ol’ boy defense attorney mailing it in.

‡ Review of Rise’s book titled “Remembering Race, Rape, and Capital Punishment” in the Virginia Law Review, Apr., 1997

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Virginia,Wrongful Executions

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1977: Gary Gilmore

22 comments January 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Gary Gilmore uttered the last words “Let’s do it” and was shot by a five-person firing squad in Utah as the curtain raised on a “modern” death penalty era in the United States.

Famous for volunteering for death — he had nothing but disdain for his outside advocates and angrily prevented his own lawyers pursuing last-minute appeals — Gilmore rocketed through the justice system at a pace now unthinkable.

Mere days after courts blessed the resumption of executions in 1976, the career criminal — just paroled from a decade mostly behind bars in Oregon — murdered two people in the Provo, Utah, area. He was convicted in a three-day trial in October 1976 … and dead little more than three months later.

Owing to his milestone status and the unfamiliar public persona he cut insisting on his own death, Gilmore left a trail of cultural artifacts far surpassing his personal stature as small-time crook.

He was lampooned in an early episode of Saturday Night Live. His public desire to donate his eyes (the wish was granted) inspired a top-20 punk hit:

Norman Mailer wrote a book about Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song) and adapted it into an award-winning television movie. Gary’s brother Mikal published his own memoir (Shot in the Heart), later made into an HBO movie.

In a weirder vein, Gilmore is the touchstone for the surrealistic film Cremaster 2, in which magician Harry Houdini — who might have been Gilmore’s grandfather — is portrayed by Norman Mailer.

Gary Gilmore’s was the first execution of any kind in the United States since June 2, 1967. According to the Espy file, it was also the first firing squad execution since James Rodgers was shot in Utah March 30, 1960; only one of the other 1,098 men and women put to death since Gilmore — John Taylor in 1996, also in Utah — faced a firing squad. (Update: After this post was published, another Utah condemned man also opted for a firing squad execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot in 2010.)

Both Gilmore and Taylor chose to be shot in preference to hanging. The firing squad is all but extinct in the U.S., though it still remains on the books in some form in Idaho, Oklahoma and (for prisoners convicted before 2004) Utah.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Private Execution in America.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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