1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

2 comments October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace spat occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he depicts the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.
  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged, was like Morrison pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1806: Hepburn Graham, HMS St. George rapist

2 comments December 20th, 2013 Headsman

Hepburn Graham, masters’ mate aboard the HMS St. George, was tried by Admiralty court-martial in early December on a charge of sodomy forwarded by the ship’s captain, Thomas Bertie.

We excerpt from the trial record via Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present:

George Parr, a boy of fourteen years of age belonging to His Majesty’s ship, St. George, called in and sworn:

Capain Bertie asked:

Q. Do you know the prisoner?

A. Yes

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-first of November last, the day after the St. George arrived in Torbay, and also n the twenty-seventh of November last.

A. On the twenty-first of November last, Mr. Graham took me into his hammock. He got me on a stool and got hold of me, telling me I must be a good boy. He got hold of my hair, and pulled me into his hammock in his berth on the starboard side, forward on the lower gun deck. It was between eight and nine o’clock in the evening of the first watch. He told me to put down my trousers, and he put them down himself. He pulled his yard out, and put it into my backside. He kept doing backwards and forwards, and made my arse wet. I was laying on my side in his hammock when he committed the act, and immediately afterwards he said you may go to your hammock now, and told me I must not tell any one, and if I did he would get me flogged …

On the twenty-seventh of November at night, between eight and nine o’clock in the [illegible] watch, I was in his berth attending him as his servant. He told me I must be a good boy. He would make me a good boy. He got hold of me and pulled me into his hammock. I did not want to get into it and he kept hitting me on the head while I was in the hammock. I wanted to get out, and he kept hitting me and asked me to stay in and said if I did not, he would get me flogged, he would get me three dozen [lashes]. He had made me unbutton the buttons before, and he them pulled down my trousers and pulled out his yard and put it into my backside. It went into my backside. He kept moving backwards and forwards, and made my backside wet. He then told me to go to my hammock and get up in good time in the morning and I went away. On the following morning early, I was again in his berth. It was before breakfast, before the hammocks were up. He pulled a hole in my trousers behind with his fingers and told me he would get them mended. He then pulled his yard out, and put it through the hole of my trousers to my backside, but did not enter it, but kept moving backwards and forwards and made my arse wet.

Q. Did he ever make any more attempts than what you have related?

A. Yes, he has attempted it five times in all, but only entered me twice.

A second boy on the same ship gave similar testimony.

John Sky, a boy about fifteen years of age, belonging to the St. George, called in and sworn.

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. Relate to the court what the prisoner was guilty of with you on the twenty-ninth of November, last.

A. On the twenty-ninth of November last I was down between decks talking to one of the boys whose name is Taylor. Mr. Graham, the prisoner came to me and [illegible] me he wanted me in his berth. I went in and he told me he would give me a bed. He then took me round the deck and set me down on a stool [illegible] of him. He began kissing me and told me he must feel my cock. I told him to leave it alone. If he did not, I would sing out. He was at this time going to unbutton the flap of my trousers. Mr. Miller, a midshipman, came in and he asked Mr. Miller to take down a great coat that [illegible] on the gun to give him more light. He said it gave him light. Whilst Mr. Miller was taking down the coat, he took me by the arm and hoved me out of the berth. I told the boy, George Parr, if he did not complain, I would. He then said that he would complain, and I told him to mention my name. He did complain to the first lieutenant, and mentioned my name. I told Mr. Graham that I could not stand it, and would complain. About a fortnight before, Mr. Graham [illegible] me in his berth and had my trousers down and pulled out his private parts. He tried to get these into my backside, but could [illegible], but got them between my thighs. Before he had had his turn, someone came in and disturbed him. I told him I would go out of the berth, and he put me out of the berth. He never succeeded with me in what he wanted to do.

George Parr’s rape claim was vouched by the ship’s surgeon.

Mr. Hugh Hughes, surgeon of the St. George, called in and sworn:

Captain Bertie asked:

Q. On the twenty-ninth of November was the boy, George Parr, sent to you to undergo a certain examination?

A. Yes.

Request: Relate to the court the result of your examination.

A. About seven o’clock in the evening of the twenty-ninth of November I was sent for by Lieutenant Caulfield on the quarter deck, and when I appeared, he said that Captain Bertie desired that I should examine the two boys, Parr and Sky. I immediately took them down to the sick bay accompanied by my two assistants, and there examined them immediately and found the anus of George Parr inflamed and not excoriated at all. I also examined Sky, and found no appearance of inflamation in the anus, as in the former boy. In order to corroborate what I have now stated I requested both my assistants to examine them also and begged that they would give me their opinion, and it corresponded with my own.

The court asked:

Q. Did you ask the boy, Parr, what had occasioned this appearance in his anus?

A. I did. He answered that two nights before, the twenty-seventh, that Mr. Graham had connection with him and gave him an infinite deal of pain. I asked him whether the anus was very painful at the time he was examining. He said, no, not very painful just then.

Q. Was it your opinion that the apperance was occasioned by the insertion of an instrument similar to a man’s yard?

A. I could not ascertain that.

Q. Would such an insertion cause a similar appearance in your opinion?

A. I think it would.

Q. As a professional man, do you think that the crime of which the prisoner stands charged could be committed upon a boy so young as George Parr.

A. Yes, I do.

Q From your knowledge of instruments could you imagine that the crime could be committed with a passive obedience on the part of that boy?

A. I do think he must have been placed in a particular position and he must have been a passive instrument.

One of the surgeon’s assistants testified to like effect. At this point, the Graham gave a scanty defense, merely describing his service since 1793 without addressing the charges against him.

The court was cleared and agreed that the charge had been proved against the said Hepburn Graham, and did adjudge him to suffer death by being hanged by the neck onboard such ship of His Majesty and at such time as the commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, etc. or any three of them for the time being should direct.

The court was again opened, the prisoner brought, [illegible] audience admitted, and sentence passed accordingly.

Greentham
Deputy Judge Advocate of the Fleet

Just a few weeks before he’d been wetting the arse of boys on the St. George. Now, only King George III stood between Graham and the noose.

Admiralty, 16 Dec 1806.

Mr. Grenville has the honour to lay before your Majesty the minutes and sentence of a court martial held on Mr Hepburn Graham, master’s mate on board the St George for an unnatural crime.

Mr. Grenville humbly submits to your Majesty that the sentence of the court martial may be put into immediate execution.

This petition was transmitted simultaneously with a like appeal from a seaman condemned for a Caribbean mutiny. Mr. Grenville recommended a pardon for the mutineer, and recommended denying pardon for the sodomite; King George endorsed both recommendations.

The King’s reply, Windsor Castle, 17 Dec.

The King upon consideration of what is stated in Mr Grenville’s letter in regard to the case of Naiad Sware, consents to remit the sentence of death pronounced by the court martial. Under the circumstances which attend the crime of which Mr Hepburn Graham has been found guilty, his Majesty is under the painful necessity of directing that the sentence of death may be carried into immediate execution.

Accordingly, that same day the Admiralty issued a warrant to hang Hepburn Graham on the upcoming Saturday, December 20.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Sex,Soldiers

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1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

1 comment March 10th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Interviews,Other Voices,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1782: David Tyrie, the last hanged, drawn, and quartered

12 comments August 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1782, a crowd contemporaries pegged at 100,000 mobbed the gruesome public execution of David Tyrie — the last man hanged, drawn, and quartered in British history.

Tyrie was a Scotsman clerking at a Portsmouth naval office, who was caught in a treacherous correspondence with the French. He lacked political pull of his own and either the means or inclination to shop confederates, and therefore faced the full weight of the treason statute.

Said venerable statute, a theatrically bloody relic of the Middle Ages popularized by Edward I for terrorizing malcontent subjects, had persisted for half a millennium or so and in its grisly Tudor efflorescence crowned the careers of saints, terrorists, lovers, fighters, and Shakespeare characters.

Tyrie might have been small time by those standards, but he wore it well this date — “played the man,” in the old parlance — before the throng on Southsea Common.


Southsea Common today. (cc) image from Roo Reynolds.

From the time he was put on the sledge, till be came to the gibbet, he continued in an unconcerned conversation with the gaoler, in which he expressed that he thought there were not three better, sounder, or honester hearts in the kingdom, than his own, which was just going to be burnt. That there was only one thing which gave him concern, which was, that his father was living, and he feared this misfortune would bring his grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. He declined saying a word to the populace, observing, that he knew not why he was to feed or gratify the idle curiosity of the multitude. He never hung his head the whole time. — When arrived at the place of execution, no halter was provided, upon which he smiled, and expressed astonishment as the inattention and neglect of his executioners; and indeed the business would have been retarded for some time, had not a rope and pulley been procured out of a lugger that lay under shore, during which time he read several passages in a bible he carried in his hand. – Before he was drawn up, he delivered a paper, setting forth, that he had authorised no person to publish any account of his life, nor was there any one who knew sufficiently of him to give any genuine particulars of his transactions in the world.

After hanging exactly twenty-two minutes, he was lowered upon the sledge, and the sentence literally put in execution. His head was severed from his body, his heart taken out and burnt, his privities cut off, and his body quartered. He was then put into a coffin, and buried among the pebbles by the sea-side; but no sooner had the officers retired, but the sailors dug up the coffin, took out the body, and cut it in a thousand pieces, every one carrying away a piece of his body to shew their messmates on board. — A more dreadful, affecting execution was perhaps never seen.


Before disemboweling, he was probably stretched out somewhat like David Tyree.

In fact, it was so dreadful (including many injuries in the distasteful rush for souvenirs) that they stopped doing it. Only gradually: Edward Marcus Despard, for instance, was sentenced to drawing and quartering, but they only hanged him to death and cut off his head posthumously. In 1814, that sentence — hanging plus posthumous beheading — formally replaced the old disemboweling-and-quartering bit as the penalty for treason.

(The invaluable CapitalPunishmentUK.org says that one James O’Coigley suffered hanging, drawing, and quartering in 1798 for that year’s Irish Rebellion; however, the Newgate Calendar’s record says that O’Coigley was “merely” hanged and beheaded, like Despard.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Espionage,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Spies,Treason

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1673: Thomas Cornell, on spectral evidence

4 comments May 23rd, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1673, alleged mother-slayer and arsonist Thomas Cornell was hanged in Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island.

The death of his elderly mother, Rebecca, and the subsequent homicide investigation have got to be one of the strangest murder stories in American colonial history.

The Cornells were a respectable and prosperous Quaker family, the ancestors of the man who founded Cornell University. (Their descendants also included Lizzie Borden of the “forty whacks” fame, but that’s another story.)

Rebecca, a 73-year-old widow, was the legal owner of the family’s hundred-acre spread by Narragansett Bay. Her oldest son, Thomas, and his wife and six children lived there with her, along with one lodger and one male servant, a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash.

Crowded as the house was, Rebecca had the master bedroom all to herself. It was well known that Rebecca and Thomas didn’t get along. For some time, both parties had been complaining bitterly about each other to anyone who would listen. Thomas resented the fact that, at 46, he was still financially dependent on his mother, who had made generous gifts from her late husband’s estate to her other children but not to him. Rebecca, for her part, said Thomas was “a Terror to her” and that she was neglected and had to fetch her own firewood.

None of her complaints were taken seriously until after her mysterious death, which is chronicled in Elaine Forman Crane’s 2002 book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

Rebecca died on the evening of February 8, 1673.

That night, she refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was being served. After the meal was over, her grandson came to her room to check on her and found her charred body lying on the floor by the fireplace, burnt “to a cole.” She was recognizable only by her shoes.

Her death was originally ruled “an unhappie accident.”

It could have been spontaneous human combustion, but a more likely explanation is that embers from the fireplace or from the pipe Rebecca smoked landed on her dress.


An alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.

No one heard her scream, no one smelled smoke, and somehow the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the house. No one seems to have suspected foul play at that time.

Two nights later, however, Rebecca’s younger brother, John Briggs, received a spiritual visitation from his sister as she slept. “See how I was burned with fire,” she said. He inferred that someone had intentionally burned her.

Briggs didn’t report his experience for a week, but when he did his account was taken seriously by the superstitious colonials. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and given a thorough inspection, and this time a wound was found on her upper abdomen. The authorities decided she had been stabbed by something like “the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” No murder weapon was ever produced, however.

Thomas quickly became the prime suspect: he was the last person to see Rebecca alive, and the whole town knew of the enmity between them. After Rebecca’s death, Thomas and his wife Sarah reportedly made some incredibly crass remarks; Sarah said her mother-in-law’s demise was “a wonderfull thing,” and Thomas said that his mother had always liked a good fire, and “God had answered her ends, for now shee had it.”

This hearsay was presented as evidence at Thomas’s trial, along with John Briggs’s dream.

Thomas was convicted and, although many of the townspeople had doubts about the verdict and death sentence, he chose not to appeal. He was hung before a crowd of over one thousand people.

Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother?

Certainly he wasn’t the only one who had the opportunity to do so; the house was full of people that night. In fact, a year after Thomas’s death, the servant Wickopash was tried as an accomplice to the murder. Nothing is known about the case against him, but he was acquitted.

In 1675, Rebecca’s son William tried to make a case against Thomas’s wife for the murder, but he failed to produce any witnesses or evidence against her.

Was this even a murder at all?

The fire, as noted above, could have been accidental; as for the “suspicious wound” the authorities found after they dug up the body, Rebecca could have stabbed herself in her struggles after her dress caught fire, or perhaps those who performed the exhumation saw only what they expected to see.

And there is yet a third possibility: prior to her death, Rebecca told her daughter she had contemplated suicide on several occasions, but her religious beliefs prohibited such action.

One final note: Thomas’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant at the time of his execution and later gave birth to a daughter.

She named the baby Innocent.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Rhode Island,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1757: Admiral John Byng

5 comments March 14th, 2010 Headsman

Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death.

British Articles of War (1749)

On this date in 1757, English Admiral John Byng was shot to death by musketry on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarque for failing to “do his utmost” to defend Minorca against the French.

The first and last man of that rank executed by the Royal Navy, Byng was one of 15 (!) children of an ennobled admiral. He’d been 40 years at sea himself, a competent, forgettable senior officer unburdened by genius.

The 1750s found him in service of a listless British Empire sliding towards war with France.

London had her eye mostly on the North American conflict already underway … but that conflagration was about to jump the pond.

In 1756, the Brits belatedly realized the French were about to grab the Mediterranean island/naval base of Minorca (Menorca) from them, and dispatched a too-little, too-late expedition under Admiral Byng.

By the time he got there, the French already had Minorca in hand, save the last, besieged garrison. Byng attempted to land reinforcements for the garrison — without enthusiasm, since he perceived the inadequacy of his force — and was repelled in an inconclusive naval engagement.

The loss of Minorca raised the curtain on the Seven Years War: the first “world war,” in Winston Churchill’s reckoning, in which European alliances would duke it out for continent and colonies.

But it dropped the curtain on the ill-starred Admiral Byng.

Popular outrage at the military setback had the Duke of Newcastle‘s government scrambling to find a scapegoat, and the commander on the scene fit the bill exactly.

A gloating French account of the engagement — “the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight” — reached Albion’s shores ahead of the admiral’s dispatch; when the latter arrived, it was publicly leaked in unflatteringly redacted form that generally made Byng look like a big fraidy-cat.

Having been thus attainted in the court of public opinion, the admiral was hailed before a court martial and convicted of not doing enough to relieve the English garrison and generally not fighting a very good fight.

Only one penalty was prescribed for this offense: death.

“The officers who composed this tribunal” themselves had such misgivings about shooting an officer for an on-the-scene tactical miscalculation “unanimously subscribed a letter to the board of admiralty [reading] ‘for our own consciences sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.'”

But Hanoverian George II had no upside in getting involved. He faced complaints enough wringing the revenue out of Englanders to defend a hereditary German electorate of no consequence to British security; what sense could there be in antagonizing the irritated masses by going to bat for the official fall guy in the realm’s scandalous military reversal?

On the day fixed for his execution [relates the Newgate Calendar] the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.


The execution of John Byng, from the British National Maritime Museum.

Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.

A school of thought does exist that the empire reaped from its rash, mean, and cruel example a generation of aggressive captains and commodores — or, as Voltaire put it shortly afterwards in Candide, “it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” (“pour encourager les autres”)

Whatever the morale effects, the British soon rallied from their early setbacks in the Seven Years’ War and emerged from the conflict undisputed masters of North America and India.

And they even got Minorca back, too.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1739: Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson

6 comments December 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”

The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.

The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.

Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:

In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.

Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!

Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.

ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*

CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.

ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?

CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.

I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.

I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.

But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.

ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?

CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?

ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?

CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.

To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.

It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.

* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,New Hampshire,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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