1752: William Montgomery, small enough to fail

Add comment November 13th, 2017 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar, which misstates the date of Montgomery’s execution because of course it does.

In the absence of a modern bankruptcy framework, underwater debtors could be clapped into prisons like the notorious Fleet. As this had the effect of overcrowding the dungeons with otherwise productive persons who were little likely to meet the theoretical obligation to repay their bondsmen, the British Parliament passed Insolvency Acts intermittently throughout the 18th century as bankruptcy holidays that would permit orderly mass discharges of debt. Given the chaotic state of record keeping there must also have been a wide swath of grey-area debtors who for the benefit of resuming economic life would bend whatever facts needed bending to slide themselves into the Acts’ safe harbors.

Our William Montgomery was one of these, who told a white lie about being abroad on the date necessary to wipe the slate clean — but found that his creditors were not so easy to forgive either invoices or prevarications, to the extent of revenging their balance sheet at Tyburn.

This Newgate Calendar entry gives us a heavy dose of editorializing. For the rentiers’ side of the moral preening, compare to the Ordinary’s Account.*


WILLIAM MONTGOMERY
Executed at Tyburn, December 2, 1752 [sic], for defrauding his creditors

In a country like England, and more especially when we view the overgrown capital, though productive of crimes in fraudulent debtors, we must advocate acts of insolvency.

The good of many must be pre-eminent to the villainy of a few; and, where we find one punished for the abuse of the lenity of the legislative body, we happily find thousands of unfortunate beings rescued from the horrors of a prison, where they had long been immured without the means of support, much less were they able to satisfy the demands of inexorable creditors.

The necessity of good faith in contracts, and the support of commerce, oblige the legislature to secure for the creditors the person of the bankrupts; and in this point of view may the subject of this case, and all others who take the benefit of an act of insolvency, be considered.

The fraudulent bankrupt should be punished in the same manner with him who adulterates the coin of the realm; for to falsify a piece of coin, which is a pledge of mutual obligations between men, is not a greater crime than to violate the obligations themselves.

But the bankrupt who, after a strict examination, has proved before the commissioners that either the fraud or losses of others, or misfortunes unavoidable by human prudence, have stripped him of his substance, on what barbarous pretence is he thrown into prison, and thus deprived of the only remaining good, the melancholy enjoyment of mere liberty? Still more hard is the case of an unfortunate trader, who, disclosing his whole transactions, and offering to assign over to his creditors the remains of his stock, is cast into prison by a single hard-hearted unrelenting claimant. Yet this is constantly done in Britain.

Why is such a man cast into a loathsome prison, ranked with criminals, and, in despair, compelled to repent of his honesty? Conscious of his innocence, he lived easy and happy under the protection of those laws, which, it is true, he violated, but not intentionally. Laws are dictated by the avarice of the rich, and tacitly accepted by the poor, seduced by that flattering and universal hope, which makes men believe that all unlucky accidents are the lot of others, and the most fortunate only their share.

Mankind, when influenced by the first impressions, love cruel laws, although, being subject to them themselves, it is in the interest of every person that they should be as mild as possible; but the fear of being injured is always far more prevalent that the intention of injuring others.

But, to return to the innocent bankrupt. Let his debt, if you will, not be considered as cancelled till payment of the whole; let him be refused the liberty of leaving the country with out leave of his creditors, or of carrying into another nation that industry, which, under a penalty, he should be obliged to employ for their benefit; but what pretence can justify the depriving of an innocent, though unfortunate, man of his liberty, without the least utility to his creditors?

Then it may be in answer be said, that the hardships of confinement will induce him to discover his fraudulent transactions: an event that can hardly be supposed, after a rigorous examination into his conduct and affairs.

It will be necessary to distinguish fraud, attended with aggravating circumstances, from simple fraud, and that from perfect innocence. For the first, let there be ordained the same punishment as for forgery. For the second, a punishment with the loss of liberty; and if perfectly innocent, let the bankrupt himself choose the method of re-establishing himself, and satisfying his creditors.

With what ease might a sagacious legislator prevent the greatest part of fraudulent bankruptcies, and remedy the misfortunes that befall the innocent and industrious! A public register of all contracts, with the liberty of consulting it allowed to each tradesman — a public fund, formed by the contribution of fortunate merchants, for the timely assistance of unfortunate industry — would be the establishments that could produce no real inconveniences, but would be attended with numberless advantages.

Many eminent bankers, in the history of the trade of London, by an unexpected run upon their house, must have become bankrupts, and thereby embarrassed thousands, had not the Bank of England come to their assistance; but alas! The unfortunate tradesman has no one to prevent his fall. Unhappily, the most simple, the easiest regulations, await only the nod of the legislator to diffuse through nations wealth, power and felicity; laws, which would be regarded by future generations with eternal gratitude, are either unknown or rejected. A restless and trifling spirit, the timid prudence of the present moment, and a distrust and aversion to the most useful motives, possess the minds of those who are empowered to regulate the actions of mankind.

It must at the same time, be acknowledged, that the baseness of a few failures often tends to render callous the feelings of creditors.

No act of insolvency has been carried into effect without the detection of fraud. Eager to embrace its benefits, and thus rid themselves of debt, men will wade through perjury, and employ every means to accomplish their purpose.

After the destruction of the prisons in London, during the riots of the year 1780, an act was passed for the purpose of absolving all who had been confined. Of this every rascal in London was ready to take the advantage. A mere form was only necessary, to enter their names; but the signatures, that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, to his infinite honour, ordered the lists to be printed and published, which put to rout whole hives of impostors. Names were herein found that might as well have expected to appear in the list of Gazette promotions.

A man of this description was the subject who led to this enquiry.

William Montgomery was a native of Elphinstone, in Scotland, and educated in the Presbyterian form of religion.

His father dying when he was about thirteen years old, his mother sent him to sea in a ship belonging to Alloa. Having continued in the naval line of business some years, he at length married, and opened a public house in Bishopsgate-street; and dealing largely as a smuggler, he frequently went to Holland, to bring home prohibited goods.

Quitting Bishopsgate-street, he lived some years at the sign of the Highlander, in Shadwell; but, on the death of his wife, he resolved to decline business as a publican; and having saved some money, he entered again into the matrimonial state, and taking a lodging in Nightingale-lane, he let lodgings to seafaring men.

Meeting with success, he took a shop as a seller of seamen’s clothes; but left the care of it chiefly to his wife, while he employed his own time in frequent trips to Holland, in pursuit of his former illicit practice of smuggling.

An act of insolvency passing in the year 1748, favourable to such persons as had been in foreign parts fugitives for debt, Montgomery took the benefit of it, swearing that he was at Rotterdam on the last day of the preceding year: in consequence of which, he was cleared of his debts, to the injury of his creditors.

No notice was taken of this affair till the expiration of four years, when, Montgomery having arrested a neighbour, the man gave notice of his former transactions to one of his creditors, who laying an information before the lord mayor, Montgomery was lodged in Newgate on suspicion.

Being brought to trial at the next sessions at the Old Bailey, several persons deposed that they spent the evening with him at his own house at the time he alleged that he was in Holland, in order to take the benefit of the act: so that he was convicted, and received sentence to die.

For some time after conviction he behaved with apparent signs of devotion; but asserted his innocence, and said that the witnesses against him were perjured; and in this tale he continued till the arrival of the warrant for his execution.

Being pressed by the divine who attended him to tell the truth, he persisted in the former story until the Friday before his death; but in the afternoon of that day he acknowledged, that after having been on board a Dutch vessel; in order to take his passage for Holland, he had come on shore, owing to the contrary winds.

On the following day he insisted that, “as he had been sworn according to the methods used in Scotland, without kissing the book, his crime could not come within the meaning of the act”. In reply to this he was told that the mode of administering could make no difference to the nature of an oath.

Hereupon he made a full confession of his crime, and owned that, having come on shore, he concealed himself for some weeks in his own house; then appeared publicly, saying he had been at Rotterdam: after which he surrendered himself to the warden of the Fleet prison, and obtained the benefit of the act of insolvency.

On the Sunday following, when he was pressed to declare the whole truth, he exclaimed, “What would you have me say? I have told you all the truth, and can say no otherwise than what I have done. If I did, I should belie myself, and my own knowledge.”

This malefactor appeared dreadfully shocked on the morning of execution, and wished for time for repentance, which he now considered highly necessary. At the place of execution he warned the spectators to beware of covetousness, which had been the cause of his destruction.


* Sample of the Ordinary’s take on the gravity of disappointing your creditors:

That he suffered justly, as an Example, and for a Terror to such an Undertaking again, I believe no one can gain-say …

for which Atonement can scarce, but if ever, not without the utmost Difficulty, be made: And, through this Filth, and Mire of Wickedness, must he pass, who resolves to make an intentional, a real Fraud.

What can the Man think that shall be guilty of such high Offence? ‘Tis publickly known that human Laws are determined to punish it with Death, and what is to come afterwards, God only knows.

Let this then the Fate of poor Montgomery deter all others for the future from attempting a Breach of such an Indulgence, if ever it should please the Legislature to grant one again. And tho’, in a former Part of these Sheets, he did not scruple to say, he was not the only one who feloniously laid hold of the Benefit of the last Insolvent Act, yet Charity engages to think better Things, and to hope there is not an Instance of the like Kind to be met with in England.

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1676: Johan Johansson Griis, the Gävle Boy

4 comments November 20th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1676, the Gävle Boy paid the penalty for his elders’ credulity.

Only 13 years old at his death, he’d spent the foregoing months as the star witness in Stockholm’s witch trials. Like the hysteria itself, he’d migrated to the capital from the provinces; it’s said that in his native town of Gävle, he’d orphaned himself with a witchcraft accusation against his own mother.

Sent off by relatives to live in Stockholm, young Johann Johansson Griis (or Grijs) found his previous evidence made him an expert courtroom authority on the infernal arts; driven by some blend of blandishments and cajolery sufficient to stimulate the youthful imagination’s potent capacity for blending fancy insensibly with fact, Griis was in no time at all sending fresh victims to the scaffold with his freaky stories about Blåkulla.

Dracula‘s soul brother, deadlier even than he …”

No, Blåkulla, a sort brunch buffet for Swedish sorcerors.

Hard to imagine this kid and a few others like him were given carte blanche to destroy people’s lives with increasingly ludicrous Satanic abuse stories.

When authorities reined in the witch hysteria, it wasn’t the authorities who were going to end up with a hemp necktie for structuring and managing a legal system that allowed a gaggle of impressionable adolescents to railroad innocent people. No, it was the adolescents themselves who would pay the penalty for the perjury that they had so recently been solicited to provide. And of course, when pressured by the Man to cop to lying about everything, Gävle Boy did exactly that.

“A vicious and mendacious rascal,” is how our short-lived character was being described by the time he got his comeuppance. (Quote from this detailed Swedish paper about the witch hunts.)

Well, maybe. He wouldn’t exactly be the first callow, naughty adolescent. But give the Swedes this much: after they hanged the Gävle Boy (and some fellow youths with tall tales to tell), they stopped executing witches. Only one more person would ever again die for the “crime” in the country’s history.

Johan’s namesake town would prefer you remember a different Yuletime tradition, the Gävle Goat.

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1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

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1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

14 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

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