1708: William Gregg, spy of slob

Add comment April 28th, 2018 Headsman

William Gregg was hanged and quartered on this date in 1708 as a French spy.

Given a recent near-miss prosecution for counterfeiting — his pregnant wife saved Gregg’s bacon by taking the blame, and had her hand branded for the trouble — Gregg wasn’t the type who would get a security waiver in the diplomatic corps nowadays.

But the job market is all about who you know, and Gregg’s father knew the previous Home Secretary.* The young man therefore pulled an impecunious appointment to an underclerkship for that same office under the management of Robert Harley.

Harley was a powerful minister who among other things consummated the tricky union of England and Scotland. He was also — according to the writer Daniel Defoe, whose able quill Harley had obtained by relieving the writer’s debts when they were so heavy as to land him in prison — an inveterate slob. Defoe claims that he reprimanded his boss for the “most complete disorder” in his office, in which strewn everywhere “papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment.”

Gregg was the man who would succumb to the temptation.

Getting by on Bob Cratchit wages, Gregg realized that he was essentially working in a gold mine … and he started selling the bullion to France, by copying interesting documents and sending them abroad.

The treason was detected by a Brussels postmaster late in 1707: evidently Gregg sent his copies to the French ministry with a helpful cover letter identifying himself by name.

This crime had deep political ramifications; Whigs who had within living memory suffered the indignity of seeing their greatest leaders sent to the block by the Tories after the Monmouth rebellion entertained some vivid plans for the Tory Harley once Gregg was arrested.

But the man who would sell his country for gold would not sell his boss for his life. Condemned to die a traitor’s death on January 9, Gregg languished more than three months while Whig lords inveigled him with promises of mercy if he should condescend to expose a wider Tory plot. Gregg staunchly stuck to his story: that it was he alone who committed espionage, and the means was nothing but Harley’s untidiness. The scandal was sufficient to force Harley’s resignation, but Gregg’s failure to cooperate denied Harley’s enemies a wider and bloodier purge.

Gregg was convicted on the statute of Edward III, which declares it high treason ‘to adhere to the king’s enemies, or to give them aid either within or without the realm.’

Immediately after his conviction, both houses of Parliament petitioned the queen that he might be executed; and he accordingly hanged at Tyburn, with Morgridge, on the 28th April, 1708.

Gregg, at the place of execution, delivered a paper to the sheriff of London and Middlesex, in which he acknowledged the justice of his sentence, declared his sincere repentance of all his sins, particularly that lately committed against the queen, whose forgiveness he devoutly implored.

He likewise expressed his wish to make all possible reparation for the injuries he had done; begged pardon in a particular manner of Mr Secretary Harley, and testified the perfect innocence of that gentleman, declaring that he was no way privy, directly or indirectly, to his writing to France. He professed that he died an unworthy member of the Protestant church, and that the want of money to supply his extravagances had tempted him to commit the fatal crime which cost him his life.

Newgate Calendar

* The Home Office technically only dates to 1782. Its predecessor post as it existed in the first years of the eighteenth century was actually Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Spies

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1776: Robert Harley and Edward George, tea smugglers

Add comment September 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Robert Harley and Edward George hanged at Tyburn for murder.

Harley and George are the postscript to a strange story already seen on this site — that of Smugglerius, the ecorche whose model might very well be Robert Harley’s brother Benjamin who preceded him a few months in death, for the same crime.


A copy of Agostino Carlini‘s bronze cast of “Smugglerius”, displayed in Edinburgh. (cc) image from Chris Hill.

It’s the macabre relic that inevitably draws the eyeballs, so much so that we scarcely touched on the activities of the smugglers behind the Smugglerius — but their story in life is as historically fascinating as their post-mortem artistic appropriation.*

The contraband in question for these smugglers was tea, and it’s not that tea was illegal — in Britain? never! The empire’s extension to India and China had sent Blighty tea-mad in the 1700s, even though the next century would be madder still, and the brew’s ubiquity had turned it into a magnet for taxation by a state that had world wars to fund.

Tariffs on import tea rose and fell during the 18th century, and when they went up, well, tea got smuggled.

At our moment in the story, tea imports to Britain are being taxed quite heavily,** to the flourishing of an illicit traffic: something like 4 to 7 million pounds of the stuff per annum.

Tea leaked around the customs-men and into England everywhere but one of its most common vectors was riding alongside legitimate cargoes: captains and crew bound from the Orient would overload the hold, and stuff their personal effects to boot, with the lucrative leaf.

At docks like Deptford — a common stopping-point for many seaworthy vessels where the Thames narrowed — the bustle of sea dogs and stevedores made it all but impossible to police what was coming off the bulging East Indiamen. This was the smuggling haven where this date’s tragedy began.

Few Britons outside the Exchequer felt the least qualms about a trade that fed such a voracious and harmless demand; in periods of aggressive taxation the majority of tea that warmed English cockles was illegally imported in one form or another. In his entry for March 29, 1777 Rev. James Woodforde‘s diary casually recorded that “Andrews the Smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bagg of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the tea at 10/6 per Pd.” (The good minister also got that gin on the black market; sugar, too.)

Yet Andrews could probably attest that merely by virtue of its underground character, tea-smuggling was a dangerous line of work … as was suppressing it.

One night in April of this same year, a quartet of customs officials having been tipped to a run of illegal tea along the Deptford turnpike set out to intercept it.

Whether product of cunning counterintelligence or a mischievious informer, the tea peddlers were alerted to their hunters and in place of contraband sent up the road a much larger force of toughs that surrounded the taxmen in the dark. A witness would report seeing the chief smuggler, a character with the colorfully underworld moniker of “Gypsy George”† pay a bunch of brawlers half a crown apiece for their service as muscle that night.

To read the testimony of a surviving victim, William Anchor, in the Old Bailey record of the trial is to come face to face with the elemental terror of crime in any age.

they asked us, what business we had there, b – t you, you are come to rob a man of his property? they continued to surround us; I told them to keep off or I would shoot them; they drew all up into a company together at about twenty yards from us; the deceased said, I am well acquainted with Deptford, follow me, I will go to the watch-house, I said with all my heart; I followed him; they kept following us, crying, B – t them, here are two of them, let us sacrifice them: then Pierson and I ran towards the watch-house, they ran after us …

Careening through the night with a pack of goons at their heels the two customs men missed their turn towards the safety of a watch-house

but never mind it, come along; they kept very nigh us, we told them to keep back or we would shoot them; Pierson ran between the posts and the houses on the left hand side upon Deptford Green which leads down to Deptford Lower Water-gate; I kept in the middle of the green; he kept calling to me, come along; I said, here I come, my boy, for G – d’s sake don’t run so; he took the second turning that is on the right side, which leads into Hughes’s field: he turned in there, they cried out, B – t them, here they are, let’s sacrifice them: I heard Pierson cry out, O dear, one or two of the party followed him; there were five of them came down the green after me; I kept strait on, but I heard his voice.

Anchor took a whack or two but managed to escape and

did not see Pierson again till about two hours after; he was then going into a boat; he had many cuts in his head, his left arm was broke, and his legs much bruised; his left ear was cut in two, and he was all over blood.

Pierson and Anchor had left their two comrades behind in the flight but both those two men also managed to get away after only a roughing-up. Pierson’s injuries, however, proved to be mortal — but only after a month’s miserable suffering at the hospital, where, a surgeon recalled, Pierson “could not move a limb.”

To judge by the evidence of the goon who turned crown’s evidence against our luckless pair, it was just Pierson’s bad luck that he was the one of the four with a rage-addled Gypsy George on his tail.

Gypsy George knocked him down with his stick, then we all hit him with our sticks that we had in our hands.

Q. How long did you beat him?

Gypsy George kept beating him about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; the others did not hit him above one blow a-piece.

Q. Did the two prisoners among the rest strike him?

Yes.

Q. Did the man cry out, or make any lamentation?

Yes, he did.

Q. And all this while the two prisoners were with you?

Yes.

Q. What part of the body did they hit him on?

Somewhere about the shoulder, or thereabouts; we begged of Gypsy George not to beat him any more, but we were afraid to prevent Gypsy George, lest the other smugglers should come up and use us ill; Benjamin Harley, and Robert Harley, and myself, begged of him not to beat him any more.

Q. After this did you leave the man?

We left him, and came away about forty or fifty yards; then Gypsy George said, He had not given him enough, he would go back and give him some more; Gypsy George went back, and we all followed him; Pierson had moved several yards towards some of the pallisadoes; Gypsy George heard him groan, and he gave him several more violent blows.

Half a crown wasn’t enough pay to give this kind of thrashing, but it seems to have been enough to prevent anyone interceding against the boss’s fury.

The men’s defense comprised little but a train of adequate-not-compelling character witnesses; George attempted to establish an alibi for himself by having a friendly witness embark a hearsay shaggy-dog story that amusingly (not amusing for George) led to this cutoff in the transcript:

COURT. That is not evidence.

Both were doomed on Friday to hang the very next Monday, with post-mortem anatomization into the bargain too. The trade in untaxed tea continued unabated on Tuesday.

* Despite the categorical language in this post, it is not certain that either Benjamin Harley or Thomas Henman is in fact the source corpse behind Smugglerius. It’s been argued recently that Smugglerius might have been a different hanged man, James Langar.

** The tea taxes that so incensed American colonists amounted to the New World extension of the same policy.

† Gypsy George was not captured; he surely would have hanged if he had been. George was rumored to have slipped into Newgate in a disguise to pay a secret visit to his erstwhile hirelings.

‡ Both Harley and George were coal heavers by day, another profession with a rich tradition of unauthorized economy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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