1673: Mary Carleton, “German princess”

4 comments January 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1673 ended the adventures of “German princess” and early modern celebrity Mary Carleton.

Mary vaulted into the ranks of famous-for-being-famous in 1663, when the pamphleteering forerunners of Perez Hilton caught wind of a bigamy scandal wherein Mary, presenting herself as a mysterious German noble, had hitched with 18-year-old law student John Carleton and run through his money.

Once the public made her acquaintance … well, there was just something about Mary.

Over two dozen pamphlets are known sensationalizing her subsequent trial and acquittal for hubby-hopping, including post-acquittal volleys by both John and Mary.

(These pamphlets don’t currently appear to be available in their original forms online, but substantial excerpts from the most famous of them can be found in the public domain 1914 book The Mary Carleton narratives, 1663-1673: a missing chapter in the history of literature. This volume argues the Carleton publications are a stylistic progenitor of the English novel as it emerged in the hands of, for instance, Defoe. We certainly would be remiss not to notice here our real-life anti-heroine’s parallels (pdf) with Moll Flanders.)

Actually the daughter of a Canterbury fiddler, Moll Carleton was accused of having ditched her first spouse (a shoemaker) for a surgeon, then ditched the surgeon for John Carleton.

Having adroitly beat that rap in a court of law (if not exactly in the court of public opinion) “the German Princess” went into show business; that ubiquitous diarist Samuel Pepys caught her on stage, playing herself, remarking

I’ve passed one trial, but it is my fear
I shall receive a rigid sentence here:
You think me a bold cheat, put case ’twere so,
Which of you are not? Now you’d swear I know.
But do not, lest that you deserve to be
Censur’d worse than you can censure me:,
The world’s a cheat, and we that move in it,
In our degrees, do exercise our wit;
And better ’tis to get a glorious name,
However got, than live by common fame.

Well, why not?

In a time with scant social mobility for women, Carleton — which is the name by which she’s been remembered although she was born “Mary Moders” — carved it out with the tools at her disposal, which makes her an irresistible academic subject.*

Carleton/Moders is nearly the anti-Martin Guerre: whereas the male Arnaud du Tilh subsumed his own identity to insinuate himself into the existing social part of “Martin Guerre”, Mary Carleton’s shifty identity excised her from the social circumstances that would otherwise define her. (She was even reported to have taking to masculine cross-dressing.) Paradoxically, her fictitious biography enabled her to be taken for her own self, which explains why she stuck with her blank-slate “German origins” backstory after it had been publicly discredited.

And after the stage gig had run its course and her identity become disposable once again, she easily resumed her marital perambulations.

Mary Jo Kietzman called Carleton’s life “self-serialization.” The Newgate Calendar sanctimoniously records some of her adventures.

After a few years below the Restoration radar, Carleton was caught up for petty larceny and given a death sentence commuted to penal transportation to Jamaica. (England had just seized it from Spain during Cromwell‘s Protectorate.)

Two years later, she returned to England — not the only one to prefer the danger of Tyburn to the rigors (and obscurity) of the colonies.

She could only live as herself at the peril of her life. And on this day, she clinched her lasting fame at the end of a rope.

* e.g., Mihoko Suzuki, “The Case of Mary Carleton: Representing the Female Subject, 1663-73,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1993).

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

3 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

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1560: Arnaud du Tilh, alias Martin Guerre

8 comments September 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1560, a French peasant was hanged outside the home he had made with another man’s wife in the southwestern French village of Artigat (or Artigues).

A poignant, perplexing tale of identity and social place — and possibly even of love — the story of Martin Guerre is at once exactingly local to its time and place, and timeless in its principals’ humanity.

As told in Natalie Zemon Davis’ captivating social history The Return of Martin Guerre, the restless (or ill-tempered) young titular peasant — impotent with his wife Bertrande, tense living with his father-in-law, chafing in rural Artigat — got out of town in 1548, joined one of the soldiering companies crisscrossing Europe, and was heard of no more.

In the centuries before fingerprints, credit cards, cell phones and Facebook, Guerre just disappeared. Constrained by Catholic law not to remarry without proof of his death, Bertrande just had to wait.

Until “Martin” returned in 1556 simply by reappearing at Artigat — moved in with Bertrande — resumed the vanished man’s name and with it his place in the village. There were suspicions from the first that he wasn’t quite right … but this man had Martin’s stories, and the villagers didn’t have so much as a photograph to test him against.

Martin was accepted in Artigat for three-plus years, fathered two children with Bertrande, and managed the estate as head of household. In Davis’s telling, he appears much the better husband and father than the pre-1548 version, and this bolsters her case that Bertrande must have been complicit in the fraud that unraveled in 1560.

Property and inheritance conflicts with Martin Guerre’s uncle (now married to Bertrande’s widowed mother) brought to the courts the novel case: was this man really Martin Guerre?

The inconclusive tools for establishing identity and a deft defense by “Martin” must have made for a riveting legal drama (French link) — with villagers taking up competing sides and the man put to the test of his memory of Martin’s life, which he impressively aced. So thoroughly did the man command the role that

the gesture, deportment, air, and mode of speaking of the prisoner were cool, consistent, and steady; while those who appeared in the cause of truth were embarrassed, hesitating, confused, and on certain points contradictory in their evidence. (Source)

On the point, perhaps, of acquittal, the case was resolved like any legal potboiler should be: with the dramatic reappearance of the real Martin — for so all the conflicting witnesses quickly agreed him to be, and so confessed the imposter husband, Arnaud du Tilh (or Arnaud du Tilb), a peasant from a nearby village also nicknamed “Pansette”. A onetime army buddy of Guerre’s, the enterprising du Tilh had been mistaken for Guerre, and had pieced together enough of the absconded husband’s life that by dint of total recall and superhuman audacity, he made for his own the place in the world that Martin Guerre disdained.

The sentence of the court was that Martin Arnaud

make amende honorable in the marketplace of Artigat, in his shirt, his head and feet being bare, a halter about his neck, and holding in his hands a lighted torch; to beg pardon of God, the king, and the justice of the nation; of the said Martin Guerre, and de Rols his wife; and this being done, the said du Tilh shall be delivered into the hands of the executioner, who after making him pass through the streets, and other public places in the said town of Artigat, with a rope about his neck, at last shall bring him before the house of the said Martin Guerre, where, on a gallows set up for that purpose, he shall be hanged and strangled, and afterwards his body shall be burnt. (Source of the translation, slightly tidied up based on the French version here)

Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin Guerre with him, passed thereupon into the historical memory, for in assigning names to bodies, had the court really sorted out who was who? What does it mean to drop out of one’s society … and what rights can one expect to command upon returning? What did it mean to be Martin Guerre but to live in the house of Martin Guerre and manage the affairs of Martin Guerre? And the characters: Arnaud with his mysterious spark of bravado; Martin and his sudden and unexplained reappearance; the two of them as if cast for one another’s roles in life and crossed up by the gods.

And the mysterious Bertrande — what did she do, and what did she want?

A bit of Rorschach history, then, which accounts for the still-robust liveliness the tale enjoys four and a half centuries later. And let’s admit: a bit of wistfulness for the time you could start on a clean sheet just by changing your name. (Although illiterate 16th century peasants had achieved TSA-quality security protocols in this respect.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, whose own account has been criticized for overclaiming Bertrande’s role and motivations, also consulted as she was writing it for a Gerard Depardieu film of the same title.


visit videodetective.com for more info

The same story transplanted to the Civil War United States yielded the 1993 film Sommersby:

And if you must, you can see Martin Guerre in show tunes.

(This medley sequence has second and third parts as well.)

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