1774: John Malcom, tarred and feathered

Add comment January 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1774,* in the British official John Malco(l)m was tarred and feathered and mock-executed by enraged Bostonians during the tense run-up to the American Revolution.

Malcom’s militant Loyalism put him sharply at odds with his city’s’s rising Patriot ultras — the sorts of people who, just a month before, had provocatively dumped British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Malcom himself hadn’t been proximate to that event but as a customs official he’d made himself obnoxious on the docks before. In October of 1773, he seized a ship in Falmouth,** threatening “to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.” The sailors responded by sheathing John Malcom in a coat of tar and feathers and marching him through the streets.

This vigilante justice was meant to come up short of serious physical injury, and it did. But it was a crippling public disgrace, far beyond the streets of Falmouth — an ironic situation since Malcom’s own late brother Daniel was a celebrated Patriot bootlegger.† Back in Boston, Malcom found himself heckled in the streets about the incident to such an extent that he complained to the governor. (The governor told him to suck it up.) And it bubbled right to the surface in the incident that brings today’s post, too.

On January 25 of 1774, one of the Patriot participants in the aforementioned Boston Tea Party named George Robert Twelves Hewes‡ happened across the hated crown agent — “standing over a small boy who was pushing a little sled before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very heavy ferril on it.” (That’s according to the next week’s (Jan. 31, 1774) Boston Gazette, as are the subsequent quotes in this post.) Apparently the kid had crashed his conveyance into Malcom while out frolicking in the deep winter’s snow.

Hewes interceded for the child, and Malcom rounded on him: “you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business!” Flexing his class rank, Malcom further scolded the “vagabond” that he ought not address a gentleman in public. Hewes dissented and after an exchange of barbs cut Malcom to the quick with the retort, “be that as it will, I never was tarred or feathered.” This own brought Malcom’s heavy cane crashing into Hewes’s head, crumpling the Good Samaritan to the cobblestones.

Angry bystanders to the incident trailed Malcom home, and heaven only knows what hard words were traded on the way. He should have been worried and maybe he was, but his blood was up from Hewes’s insult: Malcom stood on the threshold and verbally sparred with his angry neighbors — “you say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner.” The man’s Falmouth tarring, you see, had been leniently poured over his clothes, which might have been hell on his dry cleaning bills but also minimized the injury that hot tar could do to naked skin. Now he was daring a rougher treatment at the hands of Bostonians who had certainly proven up to that challenge in the past.

Calmer heads knew this situation could spiral out of control and judiciously steered the irate official into his house. But Malcom was not to be stilled; when his wife opened a sash to implore the crowd to disperse, her husband exploited the opening to thrust a sword into the breast of a bystander. Luckily for both parties the blade struck bone, causing only a glancing flesh wound.

Somehow the irascible coot restrained himself in the house long enough for this disturbance to subside, while Hewes shook off his concussion well enough to swear out a warrant.

But by evening, word of this politically charged provocation had circulated in Boston, along with all Malcom’s bluster — “among other things, that he would split down the yankees by dozens, and receive 20l. sterling a head for every one he destroyed.” A crowd started assembling again at Mr. Malcom’s door, now dangerously intent on its purpose.

they got ladders and beating in an upper window, entered the house and took him without loss of blood, and dragging him out put him on a sled, and amidst the huzzas of thousand[s], brought him into King street. Several Gentlemen endeavoured to divert the populace from their intention, alledging that he was open to the laws of the land which would undoubtedly award a reasonable satisfaction to the parties he had abused; they answered he had been an old, impudent and mischievous offender — he had joined in the murders at North Carolina — he had seized vessels on account of sailors having a bottle or two of gin on board — he had in office, and otherwise, behaved in the most capricious, insulting and daringly abusive manner — and on every occasion discovered the most rooted enmity to this country, and the defenders of its rights — that in case they let him go they might expect a like satisfaction as they had received in the cafes of Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government. With these and such-like arguments, together with a gentle crouding of persons not of their way of thinking out of the ring, they proceeded to elevate Mr. Malcom from his sled into the cart, and stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket, and hurried him away to liberty-tree, where they proposed to him to renounce his present commission, and swear that he would never hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; but this he obstinately refusing, they then carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck, and threw the other end over the beam as if they intended to hang him: But this manoeuvre he set at defiance. They then basted him for some time with rope’s end, and threatened to cut his ears off, and on this he complied, and they the brought him home.

See, reader, the effects of a government in which the people have no confidence!


“Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering” (color version of same). This print and the next one make reference to a dubious report in London papers that Malcom was made to guzzle tea to the point of bursting for “your whole Fraternity at the Custom house would drench us with this Poison, and we are to have our Throats cut if it will not stay upon our Stomachs.”


“A new method of macarony making, as practiced in Boston”. (A different print with a nearly identical title shows an expanded view of a gallows here.) The number 45 seen on the hat above was code for Liberty at this period, due to the daring anti-monarchist sentiment in issue no. 45 of radical agitator John Wilkes‘s The North Briton.


A French engraving of the event, from 1784.

* There are a few other dates besides Tuesday, January 25 to be found out there, but newspaper reports from the time clearly place it on that day. Malcom himself later circulated a strange bulletin to Boston churches confirming the date with the words “John Malcom returns thanks to Almighty God, that again he is able to wait on him again in the public worship, after the cruel and barbarous usage of a cruel and barbarous savage mob in Boston, on the 25th evening of January last past confined him to house, bed and room.”

** The town of Falmouth is now Portland, Maine. Its most famous revolutionary war incident was put it to the torch by the British in 1775.

Daniel Malco(l)m’s grave is pocked by musket balls fired at the marker for good luck by redcoats.

‡ Hewes lived to the ripe old age of 98. Enjoy a public domain 1830s biography drawn from personal conversation with the old veteran here … including Hewes’s recollection of the tarring and feathering, which in his telling was clearly extremely traumatic to his antagonist.

The people, however, soon broke open the door, and took Malcom into their custody. They then took him to the place where the massacre was committed, and their flogged him with thirty-nine stripes. After which, they besmeared him thoroughly with tar and feathers; they then whipped him through the town, till they arrived at the gallows, on the neck, where they gave him thirty-nine stripes more, and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember that he had come within one of being hanged. They then took him back to the house from whence they had taken him, and discharged him from their custody.

The severity of the flogging they had given him, together with the cold coat of tar with which they had invested him, had such a benumbing effect upon his health, that it required considerable effort to restore his usual circulation. During the process of his chastisement, the deleterious effect of the frost, it being a cold season, generated a morbid affection upon the prominent parts of his face, especially upon his chin, which caused a separation and peeling off of some fragments of loose skin and flesh, which, with a portion of the tar and feathers, which adhered to him, he preserved in a box, and soon after carried with him to England, as the testimonials of his sufferings in the cause of his country. On his arrival in England soon after this catastrophe Malcom obtained an annual pension of fifty pounds, but lived only two years after to enjoy it.

On relating this adventure, the very excitement which the affront must have wrought upon him, evidently began to rekindle, and he remarked with emphasis, I shall carry to my grave the scar which the wound Malcom gave me left on my head; and passing my finger over the spot to which he directed it, there was obviously such a scar, as must have been occasioned by the wound he had described.

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1748: Arthur Gray and William Rowland, Hawkhurst Gang smugglers

Add comment May 11th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1748, Arthur Gray and William Rowland — two desperadoes of the Hawkhurst Gang smuggling syndicate — were hanged at Tyburn.

We have in these pages formerly detailed the muscle of this fearsome gang, which having established a lucrative commercial enterprise evading tea duties and distributing its discount leaf did not shrink from brutalizing and murdering the king’s own agents to preserve it.*

Britain by the late 1740s was pressing hard to suppress the shocking violence of the smuggling trade. To that end, she had armed herself with legislation permitting the capital prosecution of people for carrying smuggled goods while armed — the attainble bar which was cleared for both of the prosecutions at issue in today’s post.

However, as the Newgate Ordinary described, there were much more shocking atrocities to be attributed:

There are numerous Instances might be given of the Barbarity of Smugglers, but I shall confine myself to one or two very remarkable, in which Gray was principally concerned, in Decem. 1744. The Commissioners of the Customs being informed that two noted Smugglers, Chiefs of a Gang who infested the Coast, were skulking at a House in Shoreham in Sussex, they granted a Warrant to Messieurs Quaff, Bolton, Jones, and James, four of his Majesty’s Officers of the Customs, to go in Search of them. The Officers found them according to the Information, seized them, and committed them to Goal. But the rest of the Gang, of which Gray was one, being informed of the Disaster of their Friends, convened in a Body the Monday following, and in open Day Light entered the Town with Hangers drawn, arm’d with Pistols and Blunderbusses; they fired several Shot to intimidate the Neighbourhood, and went to a House where the Officers were Drinking; dragg’d them out, tied three of them Neck and Heels (the fourth, named Quaff, making his Escape as they got out of the House) and carried them off in Triumph to Hawkhurst in Kent, treating them all the Way with the utmost Scurrility, and promising to broil them alive. However, upon a Council held among them, they let Mr. Jones go, after they had carried him about five Miles from Shoreham, telling him, they had nothing to object to him, but advised him not to be over busy in troubling them or their Brethren, left he might one Day meet the Fate reserved for his two Companions. They carried the unfortunate Mr. Bolton and James, to a Wood near Hawkhurst, stripped them naked, tyed them to two different Trees near one another, and whipped them in the most barbarous Manner, till the unhappy Men begg’d they would knock them on the Head to put them out of their Miseries; but these barbarous Wretches told them, it was time enough to think of Death when they had gone through all their Exercise that they had for them to suffer before they would permit them to go to the D – l. They then kindled a Fire between the two Trees, which almost scorch’d them to Death, and continued them in this Agony for some Hours, till the Wretches were wearied with torturing them; they then releas’d them from the Trees, and carried them quite speechless and almost dead, on Board one of their Ships, from whence they never return’d.

That’s all about Arthur Gray, a butcher by training who had advanced to a leadership role in the Hawkhurst Gang. Juridically, this entire story is nothing but the Ordinary’s gossip; the whole of Gray’s trial consists not of torturing and disappearing lawmen but an anodyne description of Gray’s having formed a convoy of about eight men, armed with blunderbusses and carbines, to carry uncustomed tea and brandy. It’s the get Capone on tax evasion school of using whatever tool is available; in fact, the very crime here for Gray is “tax offences”.

It’s the same for William Rowland, who was a person of much less consequence in the gang; the Ordinary has no scandal of interest to share with the reader, and by his telling Rowland awaiting the gallows seems preoccupied mostly with annoyance at his naivete in surrendering himself upon hearing of the warrant, thinking his involvement in the racket too trivial to have possibly come to hemp.

The Hawkhurst Gang would be broken up by 1749.

* On the lighter side of moral panics, we find philanthropist-noodge Jonas Hanway (who thought a proper Briton ought to fortify himself with robust beer instead of strained leaf-water) amusingly fretting in the 1750s that thanks to the 18th century’s tea craze

men were losing their stature, women their beauty, and the very chambermaids their bloom … Will the sons and daughters of this happy isle for ever submit to the bondage of so tyrannical a custom as drinking tea? … Were they the sons of tea-sippers who won the fields of Crécy and Agincourt or dyed the Danube’s shores with Gallic blood?

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1858: Maniram Dewan, tea infuser

2 comments February 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1858, the British hanged Assamese grandee Maniram Dewan for joining the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

Maniram was a young man going on 20 when the British wrested control from Burma of the eastern province Assam, and he carved himself a successful career in the empire.

But without doubt his lasting service to the Union Jack and the world was discovering to the British the existence of a theretofore unknown varietal of the tea plant, cultivated in Assam’s monsoon-drenched jungles by the Singhpo people* — a fact of geopolitical significance since it augured a means to crack the Chinese stranglehold on tea supply so taxing to the current accounts.** Today, rich Assam tea is one of the world’s largest tea crops, yielding 1.5 million pounds annually.

Maniram himself was among its earliest commercial cultivators (in fact, the first native Indian cultivator), setting up with an estate at the village of Chenimora in the 1840s, but the next decade found him increasingly irritated by the injuries British avarice to the extent that he began intriguing to restore the lately dispossessed kings.

With the outbreak of rebellion in 1857, Maniram and the like-minded made their move to restore the Ahom heir Kandarpeswar Singha but the plot was betrayed and landed its authors in irons.

Although he suffered the law’s last extremity for his plot, Maniram’s name lives on in honor in modern India. A trade center in Assam’s largest city bears his name, for instance; and, when India declared tea its official drink in 2013, it timed the announcement to fall on Maniram’s birthday (April 17, 1806).

* It goes without saying that imperial recognition of their secret produce did not redound to the benefit of the Singhpo. Although Singhpo assembled the very first export crop, much of their land was soon gobbled up by tea plantations, and when they rebelled in 1843 the East India Company annexed it outright. “Now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours, but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals,” a Singhpo chief wrote the Company, mournfully. “We therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink.” (Source)

** China required payments in specie for tea, an imbalance which London tried to redress by foisting an undesirable import upon China — resulting in the Opium War.

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1747: Thomas Fuller, Hawkhurst Gang smuggler

Add comment November 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1747, a Tyburn hanging dispatched (along with three other, unconnected criminals) Thomas Fuller, member of one of 18th century England’s most notorious gangs.

Named for their home village, the Hawkhurst Gang dominated the trade in contraband in England’s south from Doset to Kent in the 1730s and 1740s, with the arms and ill-temper to trade blow for blow with crown agents who rightly learned to fear the syndicate. In the process that gang contributed several members to Blighty’s gibbets for various deeds of spectacular violence — gentlemen whom this site will revisit in future posts.

Our Mr. Fuller, however, was by the evidence laid at his trial a mere grunt, and his prosecution targeted the gang’s more routine forms of outlawry.

Despite the smuggler’s romantic knight-errant literary profile — Rhett Butler, Han Solo — it was for 18th century England a vast economic sector organized on a nearly industrial scale. Excise duties imposed on in-demand imports, notably tea but also spirits, tobacco, sugar, and other indulgences, made these articles so profitable to move illegally that it’s a fair bet that they were predominantly consumed as contraband. We have seen in these pages, from a post laid 30 years to the future, that tea smuggling was so commonplace that respectable country parsons made no pretense about securing their refreshments on the black market.

It was enterprises like the Hawkhurst Gang that delivered the leaf to its market.

Exploiting the long coastline, from which skiffs could scuttle to rendezvous with channel shipping, the gang built a storage infrastructure, supply chains, distribution networks. We have a taste of how this worked from the words of the attorney general at Fuller’s trial:

About the Beginning of August last the Prisoner at the Bar, with a great Number of other Persons, all of them on Horseback, arm’d with Fire-Arms, the Prisoner particularly, among the rest, with a Carbine or a Blunderbuss, together with the rest, was on Horseback; and they were then accompanied with several drove Horses, and upon the Horses they rode, as upon those they drove, they carried great Quantities of Tea in Oil-skin Bags, and Half-Anchors, peculiar to those Sort of People; a Peculiarity it is which no Goods besides is carried, in order to elude Justice.

Multiple witnesses in this case described how widespread the practice is; they were needed because the crown case had an evidentiary weakness: everyone knew that posses toting oilskin bags were tea smugglers, but the witnesses had not literally seen the defendant reveal the contents of his oilskin bags. Here is a customs agent named Walker explaining the situation:

Sollicitor-General. What is the Practice of Smugglers in carrying off their Goods?

Walker. Such time as I have been an Officer, which has been ten Years, I never took no Tea in my Life upon Horses, but what was in Oil-skin Bags. Wherever I had a Suspicion, and found Oil-skin Bags, I always found Tea.

Q. How many may you have found?

Walker. Thousands of Bags; when they are in a Hurry, and taken from the Sea, they are in Oil-skin Bags; but when they carry them up into the Country, they carry them in Sacks; there is never a Gang that comes from the Sea-side, but rides with something upon their Horses.

Later, a different officer made an equally important observation about the well-known Hawkhurst Gang: “we never attack’d them, because we were over-power’d.” The Hawkhurst Gang was hardly alone in this. As readily as Britons embraced their untaxed smuggled tea and brandy, the underworld firms that delivered them were growing frighteningly in size and propensity to violence during the 1740s.

Accordingly, they were met by a concerted crackdown by authorities. (And, perhaps more helpfully, a reduction in the tea tax.) In 1745, Parliament had stacked upon the century’s vast allotment of property crimes fresh capital offenses for armed smuggling — no matter whether those arms were actually used. For the case at hand, there was no need to link Fuller to a homicide or the like: only to show that he participated in the normal activities of the Hawkhurst Gang.

As was often the case, it was left to the likes of the Ordinary of Newgate to express in words the ideological message of smugglers’ execution. He did so with great vehemence (but less persuasive effect) when Fuller went to hang:

The common People of England in general, fancy there is nothing in the Crime of Smuggling, but cheating the King of a small Part of his Revenue; and that there is no Harm done to the Community in general, or to the Properties of particular Persons: They think they have a Right to shun, as much as possible, paying any Duty for their Goods, and what they get by their Dexterity in that Manner is honest Gain, to be enjoyed as the Fruits of their Industry and Labour; but a little Consideration will teach them to think otherways, and convince them, that Smuggling is in itself a Crime of worse Consequence to Society, and more hurtful to particular Persons, than many other Crimes which Custom has taught them to look upon with great Abhorrence.

The Prejudice done the Society, and the Damage received by Individuals, next to the express Declaration of the divine Will, are the best Marks by which we can judge of the Degree of Immorality in any Action whatever; and if we judge of their Crime of Smuggling by this Criterion, we shall find it a Sin of deep Dye, and to deserve the Resentment of every Man, who pretends to any Share of moral Honesty.

In the first Place, the fair Trader is injured in his Property by their kind of illicit Trade: He pays honestly the Duties and Taxes charged upon his Commodity at his Entry, which in some Cases amounts to near as much as the prime Cost of his Goods at the first Market; this he must charge upon the Consumer, with a living Profit for his Riske, Trouble and Out-lay of his Money; but the Smuggler, who buys his Goods at the same Market, and perhaps at a lower Price, as he chuses the worst Sort upon running them, is able to undersell the fair Dealer at least one Third, and for that Reason is, by the greedy Retailer, preferred, though the Commodity he deals in is worse in Quality. Is not this robbing the honest Merchant of his real Profit, and forcing him either to sell below what his Goods cost, or leave off a Branch of Trade, to which perhaps, he has served an Apprenticeship, and built extraordinary Hopes upon, of being a Support to him or his Family? I appeal to every thinking Man, if there is any material Difference betwixt ruining a Man by robbing him on the Highway, and this Method of beggaring him and his Family by Smuggling? If there is any Difference in Point of Immorality, it must lie on the Side of Smuggling, as the Evil attending it is more universal, and reaches farther. Few Men carry their All in their Pocket; and not one Man in a Thousand is ruined, by what is taken from him by the Highwayman: But there is not a Ship of Goods run upon our Coast but injures Hundreds; perhaps not immediately, but in Process of Time it certainly has that Effect. Not only the Parts adjacent, and the Dealers near the Smuggling Port suffer by this Means, but the most distant Corners of the Kingdom are affected by it in a few Weeks, in Proportion as it lowers the Price of the Commodity, and diminishes the publick Revenue. But it is this lowering the Price which is the great Temptation; the Cheapness of the Smugglers Goods tempts the Retailer to prefer him to the fair Trader, from a mistaken Notion that it is his peculiar Interest to buy as cheap as he can, and consequently he encourages, conceals, and connives at all the Villainies of this Set of People. But if such a Retailer should give himself Time to think, I believe he might easily persuade himself, that he is robbing Peter to pay Paul; that what he gets upon one Article, he loses on another.

It is evident, Taxes must be paid to support the Expences of the Government; and that every Subject, as he enjoys the Benefit of Government, is obliged to contribute his Proportion to that Expence. It is likewise evident, that if the Duties laid upon one Commodity does not answer the Sum charged upon it, that the Deficiency must be charged upon some other. Thus: Suppose the Duties charged upon Teas, Brandy, &c. falls short 100,000 l. of the Sum allotted to be raised upon these Commodities, is it not evident that this 100,000 l. must be charged upon Soap, Candles, Leather, Sand, or some other Branch? Suppose then a Dealer, by dealing with the Smuggler, saves about half the Duty payable to the King, or, which is the same thing, buys it so much cheaper from him than he would from the fair Trader, and that his Gains upon this Article amounts to ten or twenty Pounds a Year, I mean his illicit Gains, or the Difference between the trading Price and smuggling Price; now, as it is evident, that every twenty Pounds gained this Way lessens the Revenue forty Pounds, he or somebody else must re-place this Sum in the Treasury, by a Tax upon another Commodity; from whence it is as clear as the Sum; that instead of gaining twenty Pounds by his smuggling Dealer, he really loses twenty Pounds upon the Ballance. I own, he may not chuse to deal so largely in these other Articles, as to bring it to this Ballance, but some of his Neighbours may. And as much Money as they pay towards making up this Deficiency, occasioned by the Smuggler; just so much does the Person, who deals with such People, rob out of the Pocket of his Neighbour.

If I was to charge several People, who make no scruple for the Lucre of Profit, to buy Goods which they know to be run, with as foul a Crime as Robbery, or even that of cheating their Neighbour, they would be apt to treat me with some Severity, and think I much injured their Reputation: Yet, upon serious considering the Circumstance attending this Practice, they must at last own, they deserve no better Character than that of a Highwayman and Cheat.

Thus it is plain that Smuggling is a Crime of the most dangerous Nature, both against the Community and private Persons, and as such subject to the Divine Displeasure, as much as any other Felony. It is not only a Sin destructive to Society, and contrary to human Laws enacted for the Peace, Protection, and Subsistence of the State, but is a Sin against the literal Precepts, as well as the Meaning and Intent of Christianity: We are commanded Obedience to Government for Conscience sake; we are commanded to pay Tribute to whom Tribute is due. Our Saviour gave that Answer to the Jews, though that People had as much Reason as any People on Earth, to look upon the Romans as Tyrants, and having no Right to that Tribute, but what they founded upon the superior Force of their Arms; but how much stronger is the Christian Obligation, to pay towards the Support of a Government established? Not by Force or Fraud, butby the Consent of a free People, and conducted by all the Arts of prudent Policy conducing to their Happiness, both in their Religious and Civil Capacities.

If we consider ourselves as several Members united in one Society for our mutual Peace and Protection, we must conclude it the highest Piece of Injustice in us to refuse or evade by Force or Fraud to pay our Contingent of the Expence incurred for such valuable Purposes, as the securing our Religion and Liberties.

If the Government was to make any Infringement upon the Properties of Individuals, or aim at lessening the Freedom of the Constitution, how would the Smuggler and his Friends rail and exaggerate the mighty Grievance? Yet at the same Time grudge to pay their Quota, and take all Means in their Power by Deceit or Violence to cheat the Government of what enables them to preserve Order and Peace in the Community.

These Considerations alone are sufficient to awaken the Conscience of the Guilty in this Way, and to hinder us from affording them an unseasonable Compassion; but there yet remains some other Circumstances to blacken the Blackness of their Crime. These are the Manner in which they go about to execute their Smuggling Purposes.

They go in Companies together, armed with all Manner of offensive Weapons, and escorted by the most profligate Wretches they can pick up: They employ none in their Service but Fellows who have given Instances that their Consciences are Proof against all Checks of Morality, Religion or Law, and whose Courage is equal to the most daring Attempts upon the Peace of the Society. By these Men Perjury amongst others, is looked upon as a venial Transgression, beneath the Conscience of a Gentleman Smuggler to be troubled with. Murder, Rapes, and Robberies are with them but as frequent, as they conduce to their Interest. Their Character, their Cruelty, and Numbers has given them another Source of Encouragement, and a new set of Allies. For Numbers of the Country People who perhaps abhor their Practice, from the Dread they have justly conceived of their Power, find themselves obliged, tho’ against their Wills, to connive at or conceal, and even to assist them, and when they are not willing, they are compelled to lend their Aid. For when a Smuggling Vessel touches on the Coast, those concerned or their Associates meet at a Place of Rendezvous, and press all the Horses they meet with for their Service, which they sometimes return, and sometimes not, just as their Business requires, and the Owners dare not complain for fear of having their Throats cut, or their Houses set on Fire: Not only single Houses, but whole Villages and trading Boroughs are kept in this slavish Dependence upon them, out of real Apprehension of Danger, without any Regard to Profit in dealing with them.

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1776: Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman, Smugglerius?

2 comments May 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1776, smugglers Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman were hanged at Tyburn for murdering a customs-house officer who had intercepted them trafficking tea on the Deptford turnpike.

One of these two gentleman might well be the flesh-and-bones person behind the ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

This beautifully ghastly item was commissioned of sculptor Agostino Carlini by the anatomist William Hunter: it is the cast of a hanged man, meticulously flayed of his skin to reveal the musculature for the convenience of future students’ sketches. Those students gave their subject the jocular nickname, since in life it was thought to be a smuggler.

For good measure, Carlini posed the corpse in the manner of the Hellenistic marble Dying Gaul.


Dying Gaul (known in the 18th century as Dying Gladiator), one of the world’s best-known classical sculptures. (cc) image from Tom Magliery.

Of the “Dying Gladiator”, Byron wrote:

He recked not of the life he lost, nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother, — he their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday; —
All this rushed with his blood; — Shall he expire,
And unavenged? — Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!


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

So that is Smugglerius, an astonishing artifact. For decades, it (actually a copy of Carlini’s original, which is long lost) has been parked at the Edinburgh College of Art, translating thence into countless students’ anatomical sketch pads.


William Linnell‘s 1840 drawing of Smugglerius.

To trace the ecorche‘s origin, we have, to start with, this letter from John Deare … not the tractor guy, but a noteworthy Liverpool sculptor. At time of writing in 1776, he was a 15-year-old matriculating art student:

One of the men bid me tell you, that Mr. Carter would give me half-a-guinea, at least, a week, for the first part of my time, and fifteen shillings for the latter part; but you will write to him, and ask him what he proposes: he is, just as they say, a blustering fellow, but a good man. I have seen two men hanged, and one with his breast cut open at Surgeons’ Hall. The other being a fine subject, they took him to the Royal Academy, and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator. In this Hall there are some casts from Nature that are cut from the middle of the forehead down to the lower part of the body, one part excoriated, and the other whole.

With the direct reference to the Dying Gladiator/Dying Gaul pose, we seem very clearly to have a bead on the creation of Smugglerius, and the letter suggests that it was one man taken from a pair of hanging subjects. Conveniently (or inconveniently) there were just two such pairs of executions at Tyburn in the spring of 1776: those of Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman on May 27; and, those of Samuel Whitlow and James Langar on April 12.

Now, artist Joan Smith and anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo have recently, and very publicly, argued that Smugglerius is not Harley or Henman, but James Langar — a man from the earlier hanging pair. This claim even teased an exhibition carrying the perhaps unfortunate title Smugglerius Unveiled.

The case for Langar basically has two components:

  1. Deare dated his letter about the “Dying Gladiator” on May 1, so the executions must precede that date — which means that it’s one of Langar or Whitlow.
  2. It’s more likely that Langar, a soldier, would have had the outstanding physique to attract Hunter’s interest. (Whitlow was a domestic servant who robbed his master in an unrelated crime.)

Headlines aside, this sleuthing obviously falls well shot of airtightness.

Historian Tim Hitchcock, incidentally a moving spirit behind the creation of the invaluable Old Bailey Online database, doesn’t find James Langar a persuasive candidate. In private communication with this site (4 April 2012), he remained “still very much of the opinion that [Smugglerius] is either Thomas Henman or Benjamin Harley … I am even more convinced now than before.” Here’s the case for one of the Harley/Henman pair:

  1. Harley and Henman were smugglers. You know … like Smugglerius?
  2. Trial records indicate death-sentenced prisoners also condemned to anatomization, and they do not say that about Whitlow and Langar, who were merely thieves
  3. Harley and Henman, by contrast, had killed; they were therefore subject to the Murder Act, and accordingly sentenced “to be afterwards dissected and anatomized; which sentence was executed upon them”*

All things equal outside of the date on Deare’s letter, Harley and Henman look much the likelier source of Smugglerius. (If so, we seem to lack any good reason to prefer Harley as the Smugglerius model as against Henman, or vice versa. Flip a coin.)

The historiography for Langar depends inordinately upon the present-day interlocutor’s confidence in the “1 May” date a Georgian-era teenager slapped onto a bit of personal correspondence with, one can be sure, nothing resembling academic gravity. May 1 could be mistaken outright (maybe it was June 1, and he wrote “May” out of the previous 31 days’ habit); or, it could be only a reference to when Deare began a letter that he might have composed over several weeks; or, it could be that the author had some trivial reason of personal expediency to backdate.

Maybe so, maybe not. But who would have thought anyone would be interested in Harley or Henman (or Langar) going on two and a half centuries after their deaths.

Executed Today had occasion to discuss this fascinating object d’art and its discomfiting origin with one of Hitchcock’s collaborators, IUPUI Professor of British History Jason M. Kelly.

ET: What’s the background? Why is Smugglerius being produced at all in 1770s Britain?

JK: Well, 1768 marked the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts. It took over 20 years to create.

The idea was to give Britain a school of art — of painting, sculpture, and architecture — to rival its continental peers. The French had established art academies in the previous century; they were among the premier art schools in Europe, if not the premier schools.

The British didn’t have anything comparable. And, in an age of rivalries, both political and cultural, artists and patrons alike saw the Royal Academy as central to British national identity.

The Academy hired William Hunter to be the professor of anatomy. He was an anatomist — a doctor — by training, not an artist, so he was very interested in teaching things like musculature, skeletal structure, and the circulatory system.

Smugglerius was not William Hunter’s only ecorche. He had made at least one other as a teaching aid, and he was proud to associate himself with it. He even poses for a portrait with a miniature version of it.


Miniature portrait of William Hunter holding a miniature bronze from Michael Henry Spang‘s reduction of an earlier ecorched figure. (The full-sized figure can be seen in the background of this sketch.)

What actually goes into producing an ecorche?

They had to get the body from the gallows to the art academy. Then they flayed it. In this case, somebody decided to pose the corpse as the Dying Gladiator.

They had some time prior to rigor mortis to get everything situated. in this case, they flayed him, posed him, then let him dry out, possibly overnight, so that they could make a mold of his body.

Beyond its immediate use as a teaching device, it’s also an art object for appreciation in its own right. How do you read that phenomenon?

This is very much a representation of the power of the state, the unrestrained power.

The execution itself is a display of power, but the government went further when in 1752 it passed the Murder Act allowing the College of Surgeons to get six bodies a year to dissect.

Ordinary people had no desire to have their remains used in this way. In the example of Smugglerius, the criminal was executed. Then, the body was desecrated — transformed into an art object for elite connoisseurs.

The sculpture was meant to represent ideal beauty as well as the terrifying strength of the state. The very people who were meant to appreciate the model of the Dying Gaul were the same people holding the reigns of power. In a sense, this image reinforced the elites’ view of the world, both aesthetically and politically.

Why pose the figure in this way, as the Dying Gaul or Dying Gladiator?

There’s one reading of Smugglerius to the effect that it was very subversive because the Dying Gladiator was seen as emblematic of the decline of Rome: the sculpture represented Rome’s decadence and corruption.

an inveterate abuse, which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still [in the early 5th century] exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty … which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion.

-Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

So, you could speculate that this pose slyly represented contemporary executions under the Bloody Code in the same critical way.

The Gladiator was also one of the best-known and -admired classical sculptures in all of Europe, along with the Laocoön.

In the 18th century they were compared as two examples of dignified dying. Contemporaries saw a certain stoicism in the sculptures — even though Virgil wrote that Laocoön cried out.

Ultimately, Smugglerius reminds us what happens when power is unrestrained. In a world where most people don’t have a voice, the state can ignore the rights and dignity of individuals. The real story here is the story of arbitrary authority and the importance of an enfranchised citizenry with the ability to put limits on those wielding power.

* Hanged felons not sentenced to anatomization could still wind up being taken apart in an operating theater, either as a result of their striking a direct bargain with the surgeons, or involuntarily via London’s growing trade in illicit corpses.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft

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