1696: Charnock, King, and Keyes, frustrated of regicide

Add comment March 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1696, a trio of Jacobite conspirators were hanged for their failed assassination plot against King William.

An exiled loyalist to the deposed King James II, the onetime Oxford don Robert Charnock conceived what the propagandists would call “the late Hellish and Barbarous Plott” along with fellow Stuart loyalist George Barclay. Their mission in murdering William III was to catalyze a general Jacobite rising that would reverse the Glorious Revolution and restore James to the throne: it was a recurring campaign against the Dutch usurper throughout the 1690s.

Ambush was the gambit proposed by the worthies in this case, for William.

was in the habit of going every Saturday from Kensington to hunt in Richmond Park. There was then no bridge over the Thames between London and Kingston. The King therefore went, in a coach escorted by some of his body guards, through Turnham Green to the river. There he took boat, crossed the water, and found another coach and another set of guards ready to receive him on the Surrey side. The first coach and the first set of guards awaited his return on the northern bank. The conspirators ascertained with great precision the whole order of these journeys, and carefully examined the ground on both sides of the Thames. They thought that they should attack the King with more advantage on the Middlesex than on the Surrey bank, and when he was returning than when he was going … The place was to be a narrow and winding lane leading from the landing place on the north of the river to Turnham Green … a quagmire, through which the royal coach was with difficulty tugged at a foot’s pace. The time was to be the afternoon of Saturday the fifteenth of February. (Macaulay)

Some 40 assassins had been marshaled for the purpose of surprising the royal party on that occasion but as they nursed their cups in the vicinity’s public houses they received the disquieting intelligence that the king had skipped the hunt that day.

Although the inclement weather was the reason given out, the truth of the matter was that they were betrayed. In a week’s time, most of the conspirators would be in custody* and the country on a virtual war footing against prospective invasion by France. On March 11, the first three prospective assassins stood at the bar: Charnock, Edward King, and Thomas Keyes. They were plainly guilty and condemned accordingly.

King died firmly; Keyes, in “an agony of terror … [that] moved the pity of some of the spectators”; and Charnock, being repelled in his bid to turn songbird in exchange for his life, went out with a missive bitterly defending his project, for “if an army of twenty thousand men had suddenly landed in England and surprised the usurper, this would have been called legitimate war. Did the difference between war and assassination depend merely on the number of persons engaged?” (both quotes from Macaulay) Several additional conspirators would follow them to the scaffold in the weeks to come.


“The Triumphs of Providence over Hell, France & Rome”: Broadside celebrating and satirizing the deliverance of the realm from the Jacobite plot, via the British Museum.

* George Barclay, however, successfully escaped to the continent.

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1915: Wenseslao Moguel, “El Fusilado”, survives the firing squad

Add comment March 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Wenseslao Moguel, a soldier of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, was captured and immediately stood in front of a firing squad.

Miraculously, Moguel survived their volley, and even survived the coup de grace shot to the head afterwards delivered by the squad’s commander.

Although badly disfigured, he managed to crawl away from the execution grounds and went on to live a full life with the nickname El Fusilado (“the executed one”). He died around 1975.


In 1937, Wenseslao Moguel appeared on the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! radio program.

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1563: Jean de Poltrot, assassin of the Duke of Guise

1 comment March 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.

The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.

During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.

Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.

In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,

Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†

All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.

Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.


Here’s a similar take in color.

Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.

Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the supposed treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends

Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”

It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.

* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.

** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.

† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.

‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999

§ The chronicler Matthew Paris records a thirteenth century would-be regicide condemned “to be torn limb from limb by horses, at Coventry, a terrible example, and lamentable sight to all who dared to plot such crimes. In the first place, he was dragged asunder, then beheaded, and his body divided into three parts; each part was then dragged through one of the principal cities of England, and was afterwards hung on a gibbet used for robbers.”

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2015: Nine more in Pakistan

Add comment March 18th, 2015 Headsman

Today, one day after hanging 12 of its 8,000 condemned prisoners, Pakistan extended its newfound mass-execution campaign. Nine more men went to the gallows at various jails in several Punjab cities.

On the heels of Tuesday’s executions, this binge surely portends a return for Pakistan to the ranks of the world’s most active executioners, sub-China division. Human rights organizations are predictably horrified.

Dawn.com reported the identities of the hanged men — all murderers — as:

  • Lahore (1) — Tahir Shabir
  • Jhang (2) — Ghulam Muhammad and Zakir Hussain
  • Faisalabad (2) — Shafqat and Saeed
  • Rawalpindi (2) — Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Shabir
  • Mianwali (1) — Ahmed Nawaz
  • Attock (1) — Asad Mehmood Khan

More hangings are planned for Thursday, including the controversial execution of Shafqat Hussain, whom advocates say was condemned as a juvenile based on a torture-adduced confession. The shadow of the noose also appears to have triggered a scramble among at least some of those due to be executed to reach private settlements with their victims’ families. Dawn.com reported that Qadeer Ahmed in Rawalpindi and Azhar Mahmood and Muhammad Zaman in Gujrat were both reprieved from Wednesday executions by producing such arrangements at the eleventh hour.

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1825: Peggy Facto, Plattsburgh infanticide

Add comment March 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1825, a woman named Peggy Facto was hung on Plattsburgh, N.Y.‘s Broad Street Arsenal Lot.

Facto — or “Facteau,” which variant recalls the French influence here on the shores of Lake Champlain — started her way to the gallows the previous autumn when some neighborhood dogs unearthed the remains of a human infant. It had been partially burned in a fireplace, and when found it still had fast about its throat the cord used to choke it to death. (Plus, of course, the dogs had done their own damage.)

This hideous discovery led back to our day’s principal character, the local mother of two [living] children whose husband had abandoned her due to her affair with a guy named Francis LaBare. Both Peggy and Francis were indicted for “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil” to murder their inconvenient bastard immediately after birth.

They faced separate trials for the crime, just hours apart on January 19, 1825, on very similar evidence. Witnesses established the discovery of the body, and an acquaintance named Mary Chandreau testified that she had seen Peggy Facto in an obvious late stage of pregnancy that August. This woman also visited Peggy Facto in jail before trial, and testified that Peggy admitted to having taken a string from one of her gowns to furnish the strangulation-cord.

While this evidence was sufficient to condemn Peggy Facto upon mere minutes of juror deliberation, the same case against Francis LaBare resulted in an acquittal. The mother, who did not testify at her own trial, did take the stand at LaBare’s trial, claiming (according to the notes of the judge), that immediately after she delivered the child, Facto

asked [LaBare] to go find her mother & he refused. She then asked him to go find Mrs. Chandreau & he refused, and next asked him if he meant to let her die there & he said the damned old bitch, I can do better than she can. She then requested him to help her & he did & then the child was born & he took it out and went off & was gone an hour, and when he returned … he came towards her with a knife & threatened her life if she said anything about it.

This quote, and much of what is known about Peggy Facto generally, comes via the research of Plattsburgh judge Penelope Clute. See here and here for HTML versions of the article, or here for a pdf.

It’s difficult to account, on the face of it, for the wildly differential outcomes of these trials; the all-male juries might have something to do with it.

At any rate, while LaBare walked, judge Reuben Walworth* pronounced Facto’s fate with enough fury for two … and a distinct disbelief in Facto’s attempt to blame LaBare:

there are very strong reasons for the belief that your own wicked hands have perpetrated the horrid deed. And if there was any other guilty participator in the murder, that your own wickedness and depravity instigated and persuaded him to participate in your crime. To the crime of murder, you have added the crime of perjury, and that in the face of Heaven, and even on the very threshhold of eternity. I am also constrained to say, it is much to be feared, that you will meet more than one murdered child, as an accusing spirit at the bar of Heaven.

Wretched and deluded woman! In vain was the foul and unnatural murder committed under the protecting shade of night, in your lone and sequestered dwelling, where no human eye was near to witness your guilt.

Facto’s only “appeal” after her half-day trial was the clemency consideration of Gov. DeWitt Clinton, a petition that ended up garnering a great deal of popular support, on three stated grounds:

  1. doubts with many as to the guilt of the convict
  2. as to this being a case that requires a public example
  3. As to the policy of executing any person for the crime of murder when the public opinion is much divided on this subject

Even Judge Walworth ultimately supported this appeal, despite his confidence “that the woman was perfectly abandoned and depraved and that she had destroyed this child and probably the one the year previous, not for the purpose of hiding her shame which was open and apparent to everybody that saw her but for the purpose of ridding herself of the trouble of taking care of them and providing for their support.”

The governor disagreed, arguing that the sort of enlightened people who signed on to death penalty appeals were out of touch with the rank terror necessary to keep the criminal orders cowed.**

So on March 18, 1825, an enormous crowd (fretfully many of them women) summoned from all the nearby towns slogged through spring-muddied roads to be duly cowed by the execution of the infanticide. The condemned, visibly terrified, barely made it through her death-ritual without fainting away, but she managed to re-assert her innocence from the gallows. (Some of the firsthand newspapering is here.)

After execution, Peggy Facto’s remains were turned over to the Medical Society for dissection. “A great many went to see her body, although it had been agreed that it should not be seen,” one woman later recollected in her memoirs. “Many young men went. So much talk was made of this that they said that no other body should ever be given to the doctors.”

* Walworth was a man of illustrious descent; one ancestor, William Walworth, was the Lord Mayor of London who killed Wat Tyler.

Judge Walworth would later become, for two decades, New York’s highest-ranking judicial officer; Walworth, N.Y. and Walworth County, Wisc. are named for him. But the American Walworths were bound for a tragic end … including a scandalous murder.

** “Their excellent character elevates them above those feelings which govern the conduct of the depraved … if terror loses its influence with them then indeed the life of no man will be secure.” For more on the evolution of the idea of “exemplary deterrence” as the death penalty’s raison d’etre, see Paul Friedland.

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2010: Paul Warner Powell, jurisprudentially confused

5 comments March 18th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Paul Warner Powell was electrocuted in Virginia — the last human being, as of this writing, to be put to death by that method, although he is not likely to retain that distinction long-term.

However many might be yet to ride the lightning, it is doubtful that any will usurp this virulent racist’s place on dumbest-criminals lists.

Powell confronted a 16-year-old acquaintance about her relationship with an African-American, and in the altercation that followed our man stabbed Stacie Reed in the heart.

Then the charmer laid in wait in the house for the return of Stacie’s 14-year-old sister, whom he raped and left (so he thought) stabbed to death in the basement. Kristie Reed survived an abdomen wound and a slashed throat.

So far, just a regular malevolent criminal.

But his fate turned on a small legal technicality followed by a monumentally foolish blunder.

Initially death-sentenced for the murder (of Stacie) aggravated by the rape (of Kristie), that sentence was vacated by the Commonwealth’s high court on the grounds that rape could only aggravate the murder into a capital crime if it was the murder victim (Stacie) who was raped. Prosecutors had not shown that.

Erroneously believing this decision to have freed him from any risk of execution thanks to double jeopardy, Powell then proceeded to scribble a lengthy jeering diatribe to his prosecutor “to show you how stupid all of y’all mother fuckers are.”

The entire very profane letter is here. Apart from its intrinsically monstrous narrative, it made this very unwise admission about how things went with the murder victim Stacie:

I told her that all I wanted to do was fuck her and then I would leave and that we could do it the easy way or the hard way.

… she got up and started fighting with me and clawed me face. We wrestled around a little and then I slammed her to the floor. When she hit the floor I sat on top of her and pinned her hands down again. She said she would fuck me and I told her that if she tried fighting with me again, I would kill her.

This freely-confessed attempted rape (it was not consummated — hence the state’s previous inability to charge it) qualified as the exact aggravating factor whose want had just enabled Powell to escape death row. And in fact, prosecutors were able to use it to try Powell for his life once again. This time, they got him — and it stuck.*

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Powell, it turned out, was an energetic correspondent.

Apart from the aforementioned lethal missive, he posted other bigoted mash notes to his prosecutor “Fat Ebert”; he sent menacing taunts to the victims’ mother Lorraine Whoberry; and he even began swapping racy billets-doux with the married forewoman of his first jury who, guilt-stricken at having sent a man to his death, started writing the murderer and wound up falling for him and testifying on his behalf at his second sentencing.

Just a bizarre case all around.

Whoberry, the mother of Stacie and Kristie and the woman whom Powell had crudely harassed by mail from prison, founded the STACIE Foundation to teach compassion for violent crime victims. Whoberry even had some compassion of her own for Powell, eventually forgiving him; the two spoke amicably by phone on the night before Powell’s execution.**

* This raises our periodic reminder to anyone who should come to be of interest in a legal investigation not to talk to the police, period.

However, it is our firm conviction that Executed Today attracts a caliber of reader who intuit the inadvisability of confessing one’s capital crimes in florid written detail.

** Forgiveness or no, Whoberry did continue to support Powell’s execution.

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1647: Mary Martin, infanticide

Add comment March 18th, 2011 Headsman

From Portland in the Past: With Historical Notes of Old Falmouth, by William Goold.


[Michael Mitton] came from England … in 1637 … [and] lived near the Cape Elizabeth landing of Portland bridge … “One Mr. Mitton related of a triton, or mere-man which he saw in Casco bay. The gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small Island for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopped off with a hatchet by Mr. Mitton, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.” …

There is one indelible blot on the character of Mitton. In 1640, Winter wrote to Trelawney from Richmond’s island this: “Mr. Francis Martin is here with us, and is not settled in any place as yet to remain. This next week I shall go up to Casco with him to seat him in some place there. I know not how he will lie here well, except he have brought money with himself, and here is nothing to be gotten without hard labor.” Martin was evidently a decayed gentleman, or he would not have been styled Mister by Winter. This was an honorable title then. Two years later Winter again mentions Martin to his principal: “Also herein goes a bill upon Mr. John Martin for his uncle Francis Martin. Also he was with us five months and spent upon our provision, and cannot pay for anything. He is in a bad way of living here with his two children. He plants a little Indian corn and that is all he hath to live upon. He hath neither goat nor pig, nor any thing else. He is old and cannot labor, and his children are not brought up to work, so I know not what shift he will make to live.”

These “two children” were daughters. The fate of the eldest is given by Willis, being the substance of her history as written in Winthrop’s journal. Willis says: “Martin, an early inhabitant of Casco, was the father of two daughters, whom, being about to return to England to arrange his affairs, he left in the family of Michael Mitton. During their residence of several months with him in 1646, he insinuated himself into the favor of the eldest, named Mary, whom he seduced. She afterwards went to Boston and was delivered of a bastard child, of which she confessed Mitton to be the father. Overcome with shame, she endeavored to conceal her first crime by the commission of a more heinous one in the murder of her infant; for this she perished on the scaffold at the early age of twenty-two years, in March, 1647.” Cotton Mather says of her trial: “When she touched the face of the child before the jury, the blood came fresh into it, so she confessed the whole truth concerning it.” He also says: “Her carriage in her imprisonment and at her execution was very penitent. But there was this remarkable at her execution. She acknowledged her twice essaying to kill the child, and now through the unskilfulness of the executioner she was turned off the ladder twice, before she died.”

The York records give the date of Mitton’s death to be in 1660.


From the Journal of John Winthrop (also available on Google books):

finding herself to be with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it, and though divers did suspect it, and some told her mistress their fears, yet her behavior was so modest, and so faithful she was in her service, as her mistress would not give ear to any such report, but blamed such as told her of it. But, her time being come, she was delivered of a woman child in a back room by herself upon the 13 (10) (December 13) in the night, and the child was born alive, but she kneeled upon the head of it, till she thought it had been dead, and having laid it by, the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead. Then she put it into her chest, and having cleansed the room, she went to bed, and arose again the next day about noon, and went about her business, and so continued till the nineteenth day, that her master and mistress went on shipboard to go for England.

They being gone, and she removed to another house, a midwife in the town, having formerly suspected her, and now coming to her again, found she had been delivered of a child, which, upon examination, she confessed, but said it was still-born, and so she put it into the fire. But, search being made, it was found in her chest, and when she was brought before the jury, they caused her to touch the face of it, whereupon the blood came fresh into it. Whereupon she confessed the whole truth, and a surgeon, being called to search the body of the child, found a fracture in the skull. Before she was condemned, she confessed, that she had prostituted her body to another also, one Sears. She behaved herself very penitently while she was in prison, and at her death, 18 (1,) (March 18) complaining much of the hardness of her heart. She confessed, that the first and second time she committed fornication, she prayed for pardon, and promised to commit it no more; and the third time she prayed God, that if she did fall into it again, he would make her an example, and therein she justified God, as she did in the rest. Yet all the comfort God would afford her, was only trust (as she said) in his mercy through Christ. After she was turned off and had hung a space, she spake, and asked what they did mean to do. Then some stepped up, and turned the knot of the rope backward, and then she soon died.


Cotton Mather’s father Increase Mather favored the occasion with a sermon on Ezekiel 16:20-21 — “‘is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children?'” Whereof great notice was taken.”

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1789: Catherine Murphy, Britain’s last burning at the stake

4 comments March 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, Catherine Murphy was led past the hanging bodies of her husband and their other male codefendants at Newgate Prison, secured to a stake, and put to the last burning at the stake in English history.

The convicted coiners — counterfeiting rated as high treason at the time — were the last heirs to gender-specific execution methods before the Treason Act of 1790 gave coin-shaving ladies equal access to the halter.

Though Murphy thereby earned an unenviable historical footnote, the de facto practice on the scaffold had long since been changed to spare lawmen the spectacle of a woman roasting to death. Murphy, in fact, was killed by hanging — and the “burning” part of the sentence only imposed upon her corpse. (This, however, was still more than enough: NIMBYing prison neighbors appalled by the stench of burning flesh had lent their support to the Treason Act’s reforms.)

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1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin lyric?

11 comments March 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1741,* at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

What the Newgate Calendar reads as ingratitude, the modern reader might more sympathetically see as the allure of a burgeoning city for a teenager full of dreams.

Dreams may nurture the spirit, but flesh must have bread. Like countless others through time — indeed, like countless other clients of Tyburn — Jenny found metropolis less than convivial to aspirations of honest labor.

Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle bursts with almost doting memoirs of her agile fingers, like this one:

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

Not neglecting also to celebrate the gang’s more Sting-like ruses, like this hilarious turn of the tables on a credulous cuckolder:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town.

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Alas to say, they all can’t come off like clockwork. Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies.

Finding little to recommend colonial Virginia, she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, however: one is saddened to find her in her last adventure nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act: perhaps those nimble hands, now pushing 40, had finally slowed down.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 (unrelated) victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.


Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

About That Name

We also have a modern context** for the name “Jenny Diver” as one of several women mentioned in the song “Mack the Knife”:

This song is an English riff on a German tune from The Threepenny Opera, concerning its principal male character, the highwayman Macheath. (Possibly inspired by the recently-executed Jack Sheppard.)

The Threepenny Opera updated the 18th-century Beggar’s Opera, a satiric (and extraordinarily popular) production setting operatic tropes among society’s whores, criminals and castoffs.

The sequence of female names Bobby Darin rattles off in this version of “Mack the Knife” all draw from these operas: Suky (sometimes Sukey or Sukie) Tawdry and Jenny Diver are underworld women in The Beggar’s Opera who set Macheath up for arrest; Lucy Brown is The Threepenny Opera‘s version of the original character Lucy Lockit, who under either name is the daughter of a law enforcement officer in love with Macheath who helps him escape.†

One might suppose such a fortuitous connection of Jenny Divers was a calculated one, but it seems both the character’s name and the thief’s were independently and coevally drawn from the rich vein of English thieves’ cant.

Strictly coincidental.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years, according to Philip Rawlings, so it was a natural sobriquet for an expert thief … and for an author (whose script is chock full of suggestively-named characters — Wat Dreary, Molly Brazen, Jemmy Twitcher) conjuring such a character. There’s no direct evidence indicating that either the cutpurse or the dramatist knowingly cribbed from the other.

A pity it was for the real Jenny that art and life couldn’t imitate one another more strongly.

PLAYER. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.

BEGGAR. Most certainly, Sir.—-To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice—-Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all hang’d or transported.

PLAYER. Why then Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.

BEGGAR. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—-So—-you Rabble there—-run and cry, A Reprieve!—-let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

* 1740, according to the original documentation; 1741 by modern reckoning, since the new year’s onset was at the time not recognized on January 1.

** There’s still another Jenny Diver reference in the literate comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

† The fourth name of the sequence originally was Polly Peachum, Lucy’s rival for Macheath’s affections — but when Louis Armstrong made the first popular recording of Mack the Knife, he ad-libbed the line “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” referring the actress who played Polly Jenny in both the original German production and the then-current Broadway importation, and who also happened to be present at Armstrong’s recording. Darin’s subsequent (and eventually canonical) version followed that lead and replaced the original name outright.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Mass Executions,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn,Women

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