1823: Robert Hartley, on Penenden Heath

Add comment January 2nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Jan. 17, 1823.

CONFESSIONS OF ROBERT HARTLEY

On the 2d instant, an immense concourse of people assembled at Penenden Heath, to witness the execution of Robert Stainton Hartley, convicted at the late Kent Assizes of stabbing Captain Owen, of the Bellerophon hulk,* at Sheerness.

He was of a bold and fearless disposition, and seemed to be little concerned at the thoughts of death. He had frequently observed, “I do not fear death, nor ought I to fear it. I have sought for it, and have got it; and I have got no more than I deserved.”

Previously to his execution, he made confessions, which, if they can be relied on (but those that knew him say that truth was a stranger to his nature), may be the means of bringing to justice the long-sought murderers both of Mrs. Donatty, and Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich.

Hartley confessed to the Rev. Mr. Winter having been concerned in upwards of two hundred burglaries, in Kent, Essex, Surry [sic], Middlesex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland, Durham, Lincoln, and Norfolk. He had been confined in sixteen different prisons, besides undergoing several examinations at the different police-officers; and he had gone by the following names: — Robert Stainton, Alexander Rombollon, George Grimes, Robert Wood, William Smith, George Croggington, and Robert Hartley.

Hartley’s father formerly kept an inn (the Sir John Falstaff), at Hull, in Yorkshire. He was put to school in that neighbourhood, but his conduct at school was so marked with depravity, and so continually did he play the truant, that he was dismissed as unmanageable. He then, although only nine years of age, began with pilfering and robbing gardens and orchards, till at length his friends were obliged to send him to sea.

He soon contrived to run away from the vessel in which he had been placed, and having regained the land, pursued his old habits, and got connected with many of the principal thieves in London, with whom he commenced business regularly as a house-breaker, which was almost always his line of robbery.

Hartley acknowledged that from his earliest days he was of a most vindictive and revengeful spirit. He had been punished when at school, and, in revenge, contrived to get from his bed in the night, and destroy the whole of the fruit-trees and every plant and shrub in his master’s garden.

At another time, having robbed a neighbour’s garden, he was detected and punished; when, in order to wreak his vengeance, he set fire to the house in the night, which was nearly destroyed, together with its intimates. He had adopted a plan to escape from his father’s house in the night-time without detection, which was done by means of a rope ladder, that he let down from his bed-room window, and after effecting his robberies, he used to return to his room in the same way.

Hartley had once before received sentence of death, and was not respited till within a few hours of the usual time of execution; he was then sent to Botany Bay, whence he contrived to make his escape, and afterwards entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships in the East Indies. Whilst at this station, he was removed to the hospital on shore at Bombay, on account of sickness; but even in this state he could not refrain from thieving.

His practice was to scale the walls of the hospital in the evening, and way-lay the natives, whom he contrived to rob, by knocking them down with a short ebony stick; and then seizing their turbans, in which their wealth was usually deposited, he stole off unperceived, whilst his victims were left weltering in blood, which always followed his blows.

Whilst on this station, a gentleman on board the ship missed a valuable box of pearls, and suspicion falling upon a native Indian, he was put on shore and dreadfully tortured (his finger and toe nails being torn out), to make him confess. A few days before Hartley’s execution, he confessed that he had been the thief, having stolen the pearls, and secreted them in a crevice in the ship’s side, where they had slipped down to the bottom, and he never could get at them again.

Hartley wrote an account of this circumstance to the commander of the ship, who came to Maidstone immediately, and recognized Hartley as having been engaged as an officer’s servant on board; and the latter assured him that the pearls still remained in the place where he had secreted them.

Hartley acknowledged that he was an accomplice in the murder of Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich, for which murder Hussey was executed in 1818, but that neither himself nor Hussey was the actual murderer. Hartley obtained admission into the house by presenting a note at the door, when himself, with Hussey and another person, whom he named, —, rushed into the house and shut the door.

Hartley instantly ran up stairs to plunder the drawers, and whilst there he heard a loud cry for mercy. He went to the top of the stairs, and saw Hussey pull Mr. Bird’s housekeeper to the floor, whilst — struck her repeatedly with a hammer. Hartley ran down stairs, and saw Mr. Bird lying dead on his back. The sight so affected him that he immediately threw on the table two watches which he had secured, ran out of the house, and never saw Hussey afterwards, nor had any share in the plunder.

Happy would it have been had his hands always been as free from blood; but he confessed that he afterwards met a gentleman on the highway and shot him dead; after which he took from his person a watch and 75l.

Hartley was also witness to another scene of murder which occurred in one of his midnight robberies. Himself and a companion had entered the house of a gentleman, who, being alarmed, seized a poker and made towards Hartley, who snapped a pistol, which missed fire. The gentleman seized him by the collar and drugged him to the floor, when Hartley’s companion plunged a knife into his heart, and he fell dead upon hartley.

Two ladies had followed the gentleman into the room, and at the horrid sight they instantly fainted, whilst Hartley and his companion made their escape. He has also frequent[l]y confessed that the murderer of Mrs. Donatty was the above-mentioned —, who he represented to be a most blood-thirsty villain.

In one of his midnight excursions with two of his companions, he had a narrow escape of his life. They had packed up the principal part of the plate in the lower rooms; when one of his companions, with horrid oaths, declared that he would proceed up stairs, in attempting which, he was shot dead at the side of Hartley, who with his other companion, made a hasty retreat.

This circumstance only served to harden him in iniquity, as he acknowledged that he was totally devoid of fear and natural affection. Feelings of remorse were, however, a little awakened a few days before his trial, by an affectionate letter from a sister imprisoned for debt, whom he had robbed of two hundred pounds by forging a power of attorney, by which he obtained possession of a legacy bequeathed to her by a distant relation.

He looked forward to the time of his execution with astonishing coolness; and, in order that he might have the day continually before him, he had drawn a circle on paper, to form a kind of dial, with an index pointing to the number of days yet remaining, and this index he moved daily as the days of life decreased. This monitor he fastened against the wall of his cell, where it was constantly in view. He was but twenty-five years of age, and about five feet six inches high.

* The HMS Bellerophon was one of the most distinguished ships of the Napoleonic wars — the very one aboard which Napoleon surrendered after Waterloo.

That was curtains for the Bellerophon‘s career as well as the Corsican’s; the ship was converted into a prison hulk upon her return. Jams celebrating the ship by her nickname, “Billy Ruffian”, still live on to this day.

On this day..

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

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1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

5 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, even this compromised spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

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

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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