1735: Patience Boston, converted

Add comment July 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1735, a truculent indentured servant with a name like a primetime drama was hanged in York, Maine (at that time part of the Massachusetts colony), for killing her master’s grandson.

Patience Boston had cut a hard-partying, hard-drinking swath from her teen years to her execution at age 23, leading a succession of masters to dump her contract on whomever would take it. Early American Crime tracks her rowdy career, “mad and furious in my Drink, speaking dreadful Words, and wishing bad Wishes to my self and others” through a succession of fights, adulteries, dead infants (which she didn’t kill), a nonexistent infant (which she claimed to have killed).

All this draws upon a lengthy “Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston alias Samson” published three years after the woman’s death by her ministers Samuel and Joseph Moody (more on them in a bit). In it, “Patience” relates in a first-person voice* the real murder she finally did commit.

From some groundless Prejudice which I had taken against my Master, to whom I was sold by Mr. Bailey, I did last Fall bind my self by a wicked Oath that I would kill that Child, though I seem’d to love him, and he me; which is an Aggravation of my bloody Cruelty to him. Having solemnly sworn that I would be the Death of the Child, I was so far from repenting of it, that I thought I was obliged to fulfil it. And I often renewed my Resolution when I had been in Drink, and made my Master angry, that to be revenged on him, I might Murder his Grand-Child, of which I thought he was very fond, having bro’t him up from his Infancy. I would have killed my Master himself, if I could have done it; and had Thoughts of putting Poison into his Victuals, if I could have got any. But when the Time came for me to be left under the prevailing Power of Satan’s Temptations; I took the Opportunity of my Master and Mistress being from Home, and both his Sons also abroad; that the Child and I were left alone. The Evening before I had been contriving to burn the Barn, but was prevented: I had also once before drawn the Child into the Woods with me, designing to knock him on the Head, and got a great Stick for the same Purpose; but as I was going to lift it up, I fell a trembling, from a sense of God’s Eye upon me; so that I had not Power to strike. — But now, as I was going to say, when the Time was come to fill up the Measure of my Iniquity; I went to the Well and threw the Pole in, that I might have an Excuse to draw the Boy to the Well, which having done, I asked his Help to get up the Pole, that I might push him in, which having done, I took a longer Pole, and thrust him down under the Water, till he was drowned. When I saw he was dead, I lifted up my Hands with my Eyes towards Heaven, speaking after this Manner, Now am I guilty of Murder indeed; though formerly I accused my self falsly, yet now has God left me &c. And it seemed as if the Ground where I went was cursed for my sake, and I thought God would not suffer me to escape his righteous Vengeance. I went forthwith, and informed the Authority, and when the jury sat on the Body, I was ordered to touch it: This terrified me, lest the Blood should come forth, to be a Witness against me; and I then resolved in my Heart, that I would be a Witness against my self, and never deny my Guilt; so I tho’t God would not suffer the Child to bleed; then I laid my Hand on it’s Face, but no Blood appeared. Yet after this, I would fain have covered my Sin in Part, as if the Child had of himself fallen into the Well, and I was tempted to thrust him down under the Water. After the Jury had bro’t in wilful Murder, I was sent to Prison, but got Drunk by the Way, having little Sense of my dreadful Case; yet my Temptation in Part was to drink that I might forget my Sorrow.

Patience would need her namesake virtue, since she had the best part of a year to wait before the Supreme Court could gavel in a session to hear her case — a case where she would plead guilty and embrace the certain sentence.

In the meantime, we get to the real meat of the Moody pamphlet: our murderess’ conversion.

Allowing even for the interlocution of her reverend ministers, it presents a moving portrait of a genuine spiritual experience during the “Great Awakening” of religious revival. The narrative’s latter half tracks the doomed woman’s refinements of conscience, of fear, of religious comfort and joy in God — all as she grapples with her conduct and her fate.** “How are we condemned by the Covenant of Works,” Patience remarks, “and relieved by the Covenant of Grace.”


Now … as for this clan Moody that supplies our day’s post.

Samuel Moody, the father, had nudged young Joseph into the ministry business in York. Both men appear to have ministered to Patience Boston.

In 1738, the same time they were readying all this text about “rejoyc[ing], though with trembling” the younger Moody began a bizarre practice: he took to shrouding his face with a handkerchief.

In boring reality, this seems to have been occasioned by a breakdown caused by the sudden death of his wife in childbirth, a breakdown from which Moody recovered over the succeeding months.

In the much spicier legendary embellishment that developed, however, Moody was thought to have kept this veil for the balance of his life: he would present himself in this state, it is said, to his own congregation, turning his back on the multitude so that he could lift the veil to read a sermon, and likewise sitting face to corner when he should eat in public.

In this version, Moody is supposed to have confessed on his deathbed to having shrunk from men in his own spiritual torment over having accidentally killed a childhood friend while hunting, a killing that had been popularly ascribed to Indians and therefore unpunished save by the scourge of conscience. Nathaniel Hawthorne mined this irresistible New England folklore for his short story “The Minister’s Veil”.

“Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

-Hawthorne’s “Reverend Hooper”

* “It must be confessed,” the Moodies gamely preface their text, “that it could not be exactly taken in her own Way of expressing her self” so long after her death. But they gave it their best shot, and “here is nothing false or feigned.”

** The Faithful Narrative takes special note of the impression made on our subject by “the Case of the Prisoners at Boston, especially when the Day came for their Execution”. Although the text here refers to “three Malefactors”, there’s no 1734-1735 triple execution recorded in the Espy files; I believe the event intended here is the October 1734 double hanging of Matthew Cushing and John Ormsby.

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1644: Mary Latham and James Britton, adulterous lovers

3 comments March 21st, 2012 Headsman

One James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery, upon a law formerly made and published in print.

It was thus occasioned and discovered. This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends’ minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.

Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and fearful horror of conscience withal, he could not keep secret, but discovered this, and other the like with other women, and was forced to acknowledge the justice of God in that having often called others fools, etc., for confessing against themselves, he was now forced to do the like. The woman dwelt now in Plymouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was detected, etc., sent her to us.

Upon her examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house. It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull. And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.

The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it; and questioned the letter whether adultery was death by God’s law now.* This Britton had been a professor in England, but coming hither he opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness.

March 21 [1643/44*]. They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.

John Winthrop‘s journals, specifically this volume

While Puritan courts were certainly known to execute for sexual transgressions, Mary and James appear to be the only documented case in the history of [what is now] the United States of an outright execution for adultery.**

The crime and the setting inevitably call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and indeed he would likely have known about this case from Winthrop’s journals.

There are, however, even more compelling parallel cases — which, if they do not end on the scaffold, are at least as dramatic from the standpoint of posterity.

The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:

We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A.”

Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, “Execution Done.” It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne’s novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor’s branding in a section titled “The Scarlet Letter.”

… the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor’s adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester’s plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor’s delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is “some three months old”.

It’s rather interesting to notice that in Latham and Britton’s case, even the judges who ultimately sentenced the lovers to die were overtly reluctant about doing so: the subtext of Winthrop’s narrative suggests to this reader that, had the pair not confessed, everyone would have been more than happy to use the “two witnesses” loophole to avoid noosing a concupiscent teenager stuck in a barren marriage. Whatever our caricature of them, Puritan elites too had some sense of proportionality about these things.

Even in Hawthorne, where the protagonist is punished only with public shaming, one of the crowd complains,

“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their won wives and daughters go astray.”

And they have, ever since.

Thanks to Laura James of the (alas) dormant true-crime blog CLEWS for bringing this case to our attention.

* 1643/44: England was observing the legal new year on March 25 at this point.

** See the Espy file.

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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

26 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

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1638: The melancholy Dorothy Talby

8 comments December 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1638, Dorothy Talby was hanged in Boston for breaking the neck of her baby daughter (aptly named “Difficulty”) “in order to save the child from future misery.”

Though not the first execution of a woman in the territory of the future United States, it is the first that is reasonably well-documented … and for a disturbed, possibly insane, woman striking out against her troubled family life, a case that resonated for later Americans like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

For those of us, post-Andrea Yates, for whom “post-partum depression” has become a sadly familiar term of criminology, it is likely to resonate as well.

Mrs. Talby was esteemed for godliness, etc., but after the birth of the child she became melancholy and possessed of delusions. She sometimes tried to kill herself and her husband by refusing to eat “meat” and not permitting them to eat it, saying it had been so revealed to her. (Source)

Take a break from the Headsman’s noodlings and instead enjoy the thoughtful treatment given Talby’s case by crime blogger extraordinaire Laura James.

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1824: Henry Fauntleroy, choked on debt

7 comments November 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the last Englishman to hang for forgery, met his fate at Newgate prison.

Henry Fauntleroy making his defense. From this Harvard gallery (part of the university’s Crimes Virtual Collection) of the period’s hanging press, including a Fauntleroy broadsheet (huge image, with a generic-looking merchant type as the criminal).

In a celebrated affair of the time, Fauntleroy was found to have inherited from his father a partnership in the foundering London bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co.

Desperate to keep the concern alive by maintaining a front of normalcy, Fauntleroy serviced its obligations by forging powers of attorney authorizing him to sell stock that he was supposed to merely be holding for investors.

Ever the diligent clerk, Fauntleroy made a ledger of the fraudulent transactions, plainly footnoted:

In order to keep up the credit of our house, I have forged powers of attorney for the above sums and parties, and sold out to the amount here stated, and without the knowledge of my partners. I kept up the payments of the dividends, but made no entries of such payments in our books.

The more things change

Fauntleroy, of course, didn’t have the reach of the Smartest Guys in the Room; what he did by foul means the collapse of his firm might have (more or less) accomplished by what economists regard as fair.

The firm, said the defendant, was in quite a fix.

I was only twenty-two years of age, and the whole weight of an extensive but needy Banking establishment at once devolved upon me, and I found the concern deeply involved in advances to builders and others … and the necessity of making further advances to those persons to secure the sums in which they stood indebted.

Translation: If you owe the bank £100, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank £100,000,000, the bank has a problem.

It took a lot less than that to run Marsh, Sibbald & Co. into the ground.

In this perplexed state the house continued until 1810, when its embarrassments were greatly increased, owing to the bankruptcies of Brickwood and others, which brought upon it a sudden demand for no less a sum than 170,000 £ … About 1814, 1815, and 1816, from the speculations with builders and brickmakers, & others, in which the house was engaged, it was called upon to provide funds to near 100,000 £, to avert the losses which would otherwise have visited it from these speculations. In 1819, the most responsible of our partners died, and we were called upon to pay over the amount of his capital, although the resources of the house were wholly inadequate to meet so large a payment. During these numerous and trying difficulties the house was nearly without resources, and the whole burthen of management falling upon me, I was driven to a state of distraction, in which I could meet with no relief from my partners, and, almost broken-hearted, I sought resources where I could, and so long as they were provided, and the credit of the house supported, no inquiries were made, either as to the manner in which they were procured, or as to the sources from whence they were derived.

In almost Dickensian fashion, our malefactor reacted more violently to allegations that the embezzlement had been effected in pursuit of a debaucherous lifestyle than he did to the criminal charge itself; if his version of bourgeois rectitude and endemic financial criminality further to the crumbling facade of his enterprise rings true, the ascetic clerk’s mortal penalty on behalf of his crummy bank will be a timely reminder of the pleasures one ought to seek before life withdraws them (or at least — just ask Robert Rubin! — of the invaluable utility of the limited liability company).

Having thus exposed all the necessities of the house, I declare that all the monies temporarily raised by me, were applied, not in one instance for my own separate purposes or expenses, but in every case they were immediately placed to the credit of the house in Berners-street, and applied to the payment of the pressing demands upon it. This fact does not rest on my assertion, as the transactions referred to are entered in the books now in the possession of the assignees, and to which I have had no access since my apprehension. These books, I understand, are now in Court, and will confirm the truth of my statement; and to whatever account all the sums may be entered, whether to that of Stock, of Exchequer Bills, or to my private account, the whole went to the general funds of the Banking-house.

Parliament abolished the death penalty for forgery in 1832. According to Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, a factor in the legislation was jurors’ increasing unwillingness to convict those accused of the crime knowing that it could lead to hanging. (See much testimony to that effect from the period’s lawyers and bankers here.)

A rumor circulated after Fauntleroy’s death — having something to do with the fame of the criminal, and something to do with what was reportedly his corpse’s unnaturally undamaged condition after the execution — that he had contrived to survive the hanging by slipping a silver tube down his throat, then absconded to live abroad.

Though evidently baseless as a factual matter, the legend is paid tribute by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, with a mysterious banker named “Fauntleroy” whose backstory would have elicited a knowing wink from many a reader in his time … and ours.

After Fauntleroy had thus spent a few empty years, coruscating continually an unnatural light, the source of it — which was merely his gold — began to grow more shallow, and finally became exhausted. He saw himself in imminent peril of losing all that had heretofore distinguished him; and, conscious of no innate worth to fall back upon, he recoiled from this calamity with the instinct of a soul shrinking from annihilation. To avoid it, — wretched man! — or rather to defer it, if but for a month, a day, or only to procure himself the life of a few breaths more amid the false glitter which was now less his own than ever, — he made himself guilty of a crime. It was just the sort of crime, growing out of its artificial state, which society (unless it should change its entire constitution for this man’s unworthy sake) neither could nor ought to pardon. More safely might it pardon murder. Fauntleroy’s guilt was discovered. He fled …

The wreck of his estate was divided among his creditors: His name, in a very brief space, was forgotten by the multitude who had passed it so diligently from mouth to mouth. Seldom, indeed, was it recalled, even by his closest former intimates. Nor could it have been otherwise. The man had laid no real touch on any mortal’s heart. Being a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, it was his law to vanish into the shadow of the first intervening cloud. He seemed to leave no vacancy; a phenomenon which, like many others that attended his brief career, went far to prove the illusiveness of his existence.

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

14 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

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