1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

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1827: Blue Jimmy

Add comment April 25th, 2018 Florence Dugdale

(Thanks to Florence Dugdale-Hardy, wife of gallows aficionado and literary titan Thomas Hardy, for the guest post on horse thief “Blue Jimmy”, whom Thomas Hardy also referenced by name in a poem. We dug up the piece here. -ed.)

Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer

(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)

Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.

The name of “Blue Jimmy” — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above from Mr Thomas Hardy’s ballad “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England. Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women living who can recall their fathers’ reminiscences of him.

To revive the adventures of any notorious horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless to argue.

Jimmy is said to have been, in one account of him, “worth thousands,” in another a “well-to-do” farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them profitably on innocent purchasers.

This was in full view of the fact that in those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize, and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds in each case did not deter him.

He stood nineteen times before my lord judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of sufficient evidence.

Of this long string of trials we may pass over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a ticklish one for Jimmy — in which he escaped, by a hair’s breadth only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had happened was as follows: —

On a December day in 1822 a certain John Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.

They “passed the time of day” to each other, and then, without much preface:

“A fine morning,” says Jimmy cheerfully.

“‘Tis so,” says Mr Wheller.

“We shall have a dry Christmas,” Jimmy continues.

“I think we shall so,” answers Wheller.

Jimmy pulled rein. “Now do you happen to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?” And he turned his eye on the flank of the animal.

“I don’t know that I do.”

“The fact is a friend of mine bought one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don’t want two, I must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen pounds.”

Wheller shook his head, but negotiation proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged for a cart-horse of Wheller’s and three pounds in money.

Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he called “startish” — and, having begun to reflect upon the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller’s own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller wished he had had nothing to do with the “man worth thousands.” He went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel “The Golden Heart” at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.

“I have been looking for you,” said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.

“To get another such bargain, no doubt,” says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too generous fool in his dealings.

“Not at all. I suspect that you did not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and cart-horse, when I’ll return her.”

“Good news for me!” says Jimmy, “for that I’m quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this gentleman. I’ve sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I’ll see if my man is getting ready.”

Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady where her customer, the farmer, lived.

“What farmer?” said the landlady.

“He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his horse put-to.”

“I don’t know that he’s a farmer. He’s got no horse in our stables — he’s quite a stranger here.”

“But he keeps the market here every week?”

“I never saw him before in my life. And I’ll trouble you to pay for your ale, and his likewise, as he didn’t.”

When Wheller reached the yard the “farmer” had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the town.

This looked suspicious, yet after all it might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the mare.

Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a particular mare like Mr Loveridge’s, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.

Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge’s door. “What is the lost mare like?” said Mr Loveridge cautiously.

“She has four black streaks down her right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed’ so” — here he described the shades, gave the particular manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare so peculiarly marked.

The end of the colloquy was that Mr Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse. Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.

During the trial all the crowd in court thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he could not swear positively to any of them.

The learned judge, in summing up, directed the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses. “It was remarkable,” his Lordship observed, “that Wilkins, who was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter, and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been examined.”

In spite of this summing-up people in court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this time; yet the verdict was “Not Guilty,” and we may well imagine the expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy’s countenance as he walked out of the dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact, stolen the mare.

But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was keener even than in the previous one.

Jimmy’s first question had been, “Who is the judge?” and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had tried him before.

“Then I’m a dead man!” said Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.

It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver’s, at the King’s Arms, Dorchester.

Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless she was taken out.

Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house about four o’clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night. (Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were talking; prisoner left next morning.

Robert Mills, husband of the last witness, examined. He reached home about nine o’clock on October 9. He went with Pierce the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who now began to recognise him, said: “Jimmy, I don’t think you came by these horses straight.” He replied, “I don’t know why you address me by the familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington Fair for a black cart-horse.” Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare, and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe’s possession. He examined the mare and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he saw him in Tiverton Prison.

(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.

A witness named Gillard, as he was walking to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the ground between two camps of gipsies.

The prisoner said nothing in his defence, merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.

“A Trampwoman’s Tragedy”
by Thomas Hardy
(Stanza X)

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.

Such was horse-stealing in the ‘twenties of the last century, and such its punishment.

How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness — whether the appellative was suggested to some luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never been explained, and never will be now by any historian.

About a month later, in the same old County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The account appears under the laconic heading, “Execution, Wednesday, April 25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester … Clace appears to have been a very notorious character” (this is a cautious statement of the reporter’s, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). “He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence…. In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52.”

A tradition was till lately current as to his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.

The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the “new drop”: —

“William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned, seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case.”

The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a “new drop,” and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless “flung his last fling” more boldly than many of his betters?

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1706: Mary Channing, at the Maumbury Rings

Add comment March 21st, 2017 Thomas Hardy

(Thanks to novelist and archaeology enthusiast Thomas Hardy for the guest post, which originally appeared in the October 9, 1908 issue of the London Times. The Tess of the d’Urbervilles author, a man we have met quite often in our pages, was a Dorset native who nursed a lifelong fascination with the noose, particularly when it was affixed to women. Mary Channing’s fate in particular haunted Hardy, and resurfaced a number of times in his work; his 1925 poem “The Mock Wife” is also based on Channing’s tragedy. -ed.)

MAUMBURY RING

By Thomas Hardy.

The present month sees the last shovelful filled in, the last sod replaced, of the excavations in the well-known amphitheatre at Dorchester, which have been undertaken at the instance of the Dorset Field and Antiquarian Club* and others, for the purpose of ascertaining the history and date of the ruins. The experts have scraped their spades and gone home to meditate on the results of their exploration, pending the resumption of the work next spring. Mr. St. George Gray, of Taunton, has superintended the labour, assisted by Mr. Charles Prideaux, an enthusiastic antiquary of the town, who, with disinterested devotion to discovery, has preferred to spend his annual holiday from his professional duties at the bottom of chalk trenches groping for fibulae or arrow-heads in a drizzling rain, to idling it away on any other spot in Europe.


The amphitheater today. (cc) image by Carron Brown.

As usual, revelations have been made of an unexpected kind. There was a moment when the blood of us onlookers ran cold, and we shivered a shiver that was not occasioned by our wet feet and dripping clothes. For centuries the town, the county, and England generally, novelists, poets, historians, guidebook writers, and what not, had been freely indulging their imaginations in picturing scenes that, they assumed, must have been enacted within those oval slopes; the feats, the contests, animal exhibitions, even gladiatorial combats, before throngs of people

Who loved the games men played with death,
Where death must win

— briefly, the Colosseum programme on a smaller scale. But up were thrown from one corner prehistoric implements, chipped flints, horns, and other remains, and a voice announced that the earthworks were of the paleolithic or neolithic age, and not Roman at all!

This, however, was but a temporary and, it is believed, unnecessary alarm. At other points in the structure, as has been already stated in The Times, the level floor of an arena, trodden smooth, and coated with traces of gravel, was discovered with Roman relics and coins on its surface: and at the entrance and in front of the podium, a row of post-holes, apparently for barriers, as square as when they were dug, together with other significant marks, which made it fairly probable that, whatever the place had been before Julius Caesar’s landing, it had been used as an amphitheatre at some time during the Roman occupation. The obvious explanation, to those who are not specialists, seems to be that here, as elsewhere, the colonists, to save labour, shaped and adapted to their own use some earthworks already on the spot. This was antecedently likely from the fact that the amphitheatre stands on an elevated site — or, in the enigmatic words of Hutchins, is “artfully set on the top of a plain,” — and that every similar spot in the neighbourhood has a tumulus or tumuli upon it; or had till some were carted away within living memory.

But this is a matter on which the professional investigators will have their conclusive say when funds are forthcoming to enable them to dig further. For some reason they have hitherto left undisturbed the ground about the southern end of the arena, underneath which the cavea or vault for animals is traditionally said to be situated, although it is doubtful if any such vault, supposing it ever to have existed, would have been suffered to remain there, stones being valuable in a chalk district. And if it had been built of chalk blocks the frost and rains of centuries would have pulvrized them by this time.

While the antiquaries are musing on the puzzling problems that arise from the confusion of dates in the remains, the mere observer who possesses a smattering of local history and remembers local traditions that have been recounted by people now dead and gone, must walk round the familiar arena, and consider. And he is not, like the archaists, compelled to restrict his thoughts to the early centuries of our era. The sun has gone down behind the avenue on the Roman Via and modern road that adjoins, and the October moon is rising on the south-east behind the parapet, the two terminations of which by the north entrance jut against the sky like knuckles. The place is now in its normal state of repose and silence, save for the occasional bray of a motorist passing along outside in sublime ignorance of amphitheatrical lore, or the clang of shunting at the nearest railroad station. The breeze is not strong enough to stir even the grass-bents with which the slopes are covered, and over which the loiterer’s footsteps are quite noiseless.

Like all such taciturn presences, Maumbury is less taciturn by night than by day, which simply means that the episodes and incidents associated therewith come back more readily in the mind in nocturnal hours. First, it recalls to us that, if probably Roman, it is a good deal more. Its history under the rule of the Romans would not extend to a longer period than 200 or 300 years, while it has had a history of 1,600 years since they abandoned this island, through which ages it may have been regarded as a handy place for early English council-gatherings, may have been the scene of many an exciting episode in the life of the Western kingdom. But for century after century it keeps itself closely curtained, except at some moments to be mentioned.

The civil wars of Charles I unscreen it a little, and we vaguely learn that it was used by the artillery when the struggle was in this district, and that certain irregularities in its summit were caused then. The next incident that flashes a light over its contours is Sir Christopher Wren‘s visit a quarter of a century later. Nobody knows what the inhabitants thought to be the origin of its elliptic banks — differing from others in the vicinity by having no trench around them — until the day came when, according to legend, Wren passed up the adjoining highway on his journey to Portland to select stone for St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was struck with the sight of the mounts. Possibly he asked some rustic at plough there for information. That all tradition of their use as an amphitheatre had been lost is to be inferred from the popular name, and one can quite undrstand how readily, as he entered and stood on the summit, a man whose studies had lain so largely in the direction of Roman architecture should have ascribed a Roman origin to the erection. That the offhand guess of a passing architect should have turned out to be true — and it does not at present seem possible to prove the whole construction to be prehistoric — is a remarkable tribute to his insight.

The Amphitheatre was a huge circular enclosure, with a notch at opposite extremities of its diameter north and south. From its sloping internal form it might have been called the spittoon of Jötuns … Melancholy, impressive, lonely, yet accessible from every part of the town, the historic circle was the frequent spot for appointments of a furtive kind. Intrigues were arranged there; tentative meetings were there experimented after divisions and feuds … its associations had about them something sinister … apart from the sanguinary nature of the games originally played therein, such incidents attached to its past as these: that for scores of years the town-gallows had stood at one corner; that in 1705 a woman who had murdered her husband was half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators. Tradition reports that at a certain stage of the burning her heart burst and leapt ouf of her body, to the terror of them all, and that not one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that.

-Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

The curtain drops for another 40 years, and then Maumbury was the scene of as sinister an event as any associated with it, because it was a definite event. It is one which darkens its concave to this day. This was the death suffered there on March 21, 1705-6,** of a girl who had not yet reached her nineteenth year. Here, at any rate, we touch real flesh and blood, and no longer uncertain visions of possible Romans at their games or barbarians at their sacrifices. The story is a ghastly one, but nevertheless very distinctly a chapter of Maumbury’s experiences. This girl was the wife of a grocer in the town, a handsome young woman “of good natural parts,” and educated “to a proficiency suitable enough to one of her sex, to which likewise was added dancing.” She was tried and condemned for poisoning her husband, a Mr. Thomas Channing, to whom she had been married against her wish by the compulsion of her parents. The present writer has examined more than once a report of her trial, and can find no distinct evidence that the thoughtless, pleasure-loving creature committed the crime, while it contains much to suggest that she did not. Nor is any motive discoverable for such an act. She was allowed to have her former lover or lovers about her by her indulgent and weak-minded husband, who permitted her to go her own ways, give parties, and supplied her with plenty of money. However, at the assizes at the end of July, she was found guilty, after a trial in which the testimony chiefly went to show her careless character before and after marriage. During the three sultry days of its continuance, she, who was soon to become a mother, stood at the bar — then, as may be known, an actual bar of iron — “by reason of which (runs the account) and her much talking, being quite spent, she moved the Court for the liberty of a glass of water.” She conducted her own defence with the greatest ability, and was complimented thereupon by Judge Price, who tried her, but did not extend his compliment to a merciful summing-up. Maybe that he, like Pontius Pilate, was influenced by the desire of the townsfolk to wreak vengeance on somebody, right or wrong. When sentence was about to be passed, she pleaded her condition; and execution was postponed. Whilst awaiting the birth of her child in the old damp gaol by the river at the bottom of the town, near the White Hart inn, which stands there still, she was placed in the common room for women prisoners and no bed provided for her, no special payment and no bed provided for her, no special payment having been made to her goaler, Mr. Knapton, for a separate cell. Someone obtained for her the old tilt of a wagon to screen her from surrounding eyes, and under this she was delivered of a son, in December. After her lying-in she was attacked with an intermittent fever of a violent and lasting kind, which preyed upon her until she was nearly wasted away. In this state, at the next assizes, on the 8th of March following, the unhappy woman, who now said that she longed for death, but still persisted in her innocence, was again brought to the bar, and her execution fixed for the 21st.

On that day two men were hanged before her turn came, and then, “the under-sheriff having taken some refreshment,” he proceeded to his biggest and last job with this girl not yet 19, now reduced to a skeleton by the long fever, and already more dead than alive. She was conveyed from the gaol in a cart “by her father’s and husband’s houses,” so that the course of the procession must have been up the High-East-street as far as the Bow, thence down South-street and up the straight old Roman road to the Ring beside it. “When fixed to the stake she justified her innocence to the very last, and left the world with a courage seldom found in her sex. She being first strangled, the fire was kindled about five in the afternoon, and in the sight of many thousands she was consumed to ashes.” There is nothing to show that she was dead before the burning began, and from the use of the word “strangled” and not “hanged,” it would seem that she was merely rendered insensible before the fire was lit. An ancestor of the present writer, who witnessed the scene, has handed down the information that “her heart leapt out” during the burning, and other curious details that cannot be printed here. Was man ever “slaughtered by his fellow man” during the Roman or barbarian use of this place of games or of sacrifice in circumstances of greater atrocity?

A melodramatic, though less gruesome, exhibition within the arena was that which occurred at the time of the “No Popery” riots, and was witnessed by this writer when a small child. Highly realistic effigies of the Pope and Cardinal Wiseman were borne in procession from Fordington Hill round the town, followed by a long train of mock priests, monks, and nuns, and preceded by a young man discharging Roman candles, till the same wicked old place was reached, in the centre of which there stood a huge rick of furze, with a gallows above. The figures were slung up, and the fire blazed till they were blown to pieces by fireworks contained within them.

Like its more famous prototype, the Colosseum, this spot of sombre records has also been the scene of Christian worship, but only on one occasion, so far as the writer of these columns is aware, that being the Thanksgiving service for Peace a few years ago. The surplices of the clergy and choristers, as seen against the green grass, the shining brass musical instruments, the enormous chorus of singing voices, formed not the least impressive of the congregated masses that Maumbury Ring has drawn into its midst during its existence of a probable eighteen hundred years in its present shape, and of some possible thousands of years in an earlier form.


So large was the quantity of material thrown up in the course of the excavations at Maumbury Ring, Dorchester, especially from the prehistoric pit which was unexpectedly struck, that the work of filling in, which has been in progress eight days, is likely to last nearly a week longer. The pit, situated at the base of the bank on the north-west side, between the bank and the arena, was found at the conclusion of the excavations to be 30ft. deep, and Mr. St. George Gray thinks it is the deepest archaeological excavation on record in Britain. Of irregular shape, and apparently excavated in the solid chalk subsoil, it diminished in size from a diameter of about 6ft. at the mouth to about 18in. by 15in. at the bottom. One of the three red-deer antler picks recovered from the deposit in the pit was found resting on the solid chalk floor of the bottom, and worked flint was found within a few feet of the bottom. The picks exactly resemble those which Mr. St. George Gray found in the great fosse at Avebury last May. Roman deposits and specimens were found in the upper part of the pit down to the level of the chalk floor of the arena, but not below it.

* Hardy was himself a member of this club for amateur enthusiasts. In his novelist’s guise, Hardy glossed this very real group as the fictional Wessex Field and Antiquarian Clubs, whose meeting scaffolds the collection of short stories in his A Group of Noble Dames.

** England was keeping its official start to the new year on “Lady Day” in late March, so the year of this execution would be 1706 as we reckon it retrospectively (using January 1 as New Year’s), but 1705 to the hangman. See the footnote in this post for more (and more Hardy commentary) on the date.

On this day..

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1831: Edmund Bushby, Swing rioter

Add comment January 1st, 2016 Headsman

On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.

“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.

Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*

Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.

And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.


From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.

In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.

As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.

Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.

This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.


1844 Punch magazine cartoon. (Source)

Following a long tradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)

Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)

A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:

My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.

Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)

Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,

three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.

After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.

* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.

** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.

† We have met Thomas Hardy several times in these pages; his was surely a soul sensitive to the plight of the condemned. Hardy [probably] set the action of his short story “The Withered Arm” (with its gallows climax) in the Swing Riots period.

‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Not Executed,Public Executions

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Unspecified Year: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

2 comments July 28th, 2011 Headsman

On an unspecified July date in an unspecified late-19th century year, the title character of Thomas Hardy‘s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was hanged for murder.

Recent film adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The book is available free from Gutenberg.org.

The heroine, “goodness made interesting” — or “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,” in the words of the subtitle — has been torn between the man she loves, Angel Clare, and one she loathes, Alec d’Urberville. Alec’s early, unwelcome attentions lead him to forcibly deflower young Tess, and the revelation that she is not a virgin ultimately shatters her prospectively happy marriage to Angel.

Years later, Angel returns from seeking his fortune in Brazil to find Tess miserably wed to her onetime rapist. But no sooner has Tess sent Angel away than she chases him down in the streets of Sandbourne.

“Angel,” she said, as if waiting for this, “do you know what I have been running after you for? To tell you that I have killed him!” A pitiful white smile lit her face as she spoke.

“What!” said he, thinking from the strangeness of her manner that she was in some delirium.

“I have done it — I don’t know how,” she continued. “Still, I owed it to you, and to myself, Angel. I feared long ago, when I struck him on the mouth with my glove, that I might do it some day for the trap he set for me in my simple youth, and his wrong to you through me. He has come between us and ruined us, and now he can never do it any more.”

The two flee together overland, intending to wait out the search that must pursue them and slip away to a ship. They have a few days’ idyllic refuge in an abandoned house, and at once blissful and tragic, Tess foreshadows her fate:

“I fear that what you think of me now may not last. I do not wish to outlive your present feeling for me. I would rather not. I would rather be dead and buried when the time comes for you to despise me, so that it may never be known to me that you despised me.”

Finally forced to move on, they cinematically take their rest at Stonehenge — Tess literally sleeping on an altar.


One of the illustrations of the original serialized version of Tess.

There they are captured — on a pagan shrine, their love long frustrated in its licit form, at last fulfilled on the lam. (“Fulfillment” is the title of the novel’s last section.)

Hardy wastes no words on his heroine’s travail with the judiciary, which is merely inexorable.

The city of Wintoncester, that fine old city, aforetime capital of Wessex, lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning. The gabled brick, tile, and freestone houses had almost dried off for the season their integument of lichen, the streams in the meadows were low, and in the sloping High Street, from the West Gateway to the mediæval cross, and from the mediæval cross to the bridge, that leisurely dusting and sweeping was in progress which usually ushers in an old-fashioned market-day.

From the western gate aforesaid the highway, as every Wintoncestrian knows, ascends a long and regular incline of the exact length of a measured mile, leaving the houses gradually behind. Up this road from the precincts of the city two persons were walking rapidly, as if unconscious of the trying ascent — unconscious through preoccupation and not through buoyancy. They had emerged upon this road through a narrow, barred wicket in a high wall a little lower down. They seemed anxious to get out of the sight of the houses and of their kind, and this road appeared to offer the quickest means of doing so. Though they were young, they walked with bowed heads, which gait of grief the sun’s rays smiled on pitilessly.

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature — half girl, half woman — a spiritualized image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes — Clare’s sister-in-law, ‘Liza-Lu. Their pale faces seemed to have shrunk to half their natural size. They moved on hand in hand, and never spoke a word, the drooping of their heads being that of Giotto’s “Two Apostles”.

When they had nearly reached the top of the great West Hill the clocks in the town struck eight. Each gave a start at the notes, and, walking onward yet a few steps, they reached the first milestone, standing whitely on the green margin of the grass, and backed by the down, which here was open to the road. They entered upon the turf, and, impelled by a force that seemed to overrule their will, suddenly stood still, turned, and waited in paralyzed suspense beside the stone.

The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing — among them the broad cathedral tower, with its Norman windows and immense length of aisle and nave, the spires of St Thomas’s, the pinnacled tower of the College, and, more to the right, the tower and gables of the ancient hospice, where to this day the pilgrim may receive his dole of bread and ale. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it.

Against these far stretches of country rose, in front of the other city edifices, a large red-brick building, with level gray roofs, and rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity, the whole contrasting greatly by its formalism with the quaint irregularities of the Gothic erections. It was somewhat disguised from the road in passing it by yews and evergreen oaks, but it was visible enough up here. The wicket from which the pair had lately emerged was in the wall of this structure. From the middle of the building an ugly flat-topped octagonal tower ascended against the east horizon, and viewed from this spot, on its shady side and against the light, it seemed the one blot on the city’s beauty. Yet it was with this blot, and not with the beauty, that the two gazers were concerned.

Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Among the numerous potential inspirations for the character of Tess was a woman we have already met in these pages: Elizabeth Martha Brown, an battered wife who slew her husband. The teenaged Hardy saw her publicly executed one rainy morning in Dorset in 1856.

On this day..

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1916: Private Billy Nelson

3 comments August 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.

The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy

I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”

“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.

Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,

“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”

According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.

“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”

Hap
by Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:

Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’

In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

* The title is a Biblical allusion to Jeremiah 51:20.

As a slight stretch, part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy

1 comment August 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1858, an “unusual incident” occurred in the life of then 18-year-old architect’s apprentice Thomas Hardy, as related by Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

He probably could have used a Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.


The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.

The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that

the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.


As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that

[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Rape

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1856: Elizabeth Martha Brown, Tess of the D’Urbervilles inspiration

3 comments August 9th, 2010 Headsman

On a drizzly morning this date in 1856, Elizabeth Martha Brown (or Browne) was hanged for murder as a young and fascinated Thomas Hardy looked on.

Brown was born Clark(e), but she took the name of a husband 20 years younger than she, which is how she got into this mess.

Said John Brown was rumored to have made the match for money, though his older wife sure seems to have held her own in the looks department. (More on that in a bit.)

In due time, John afflicted their already-tempestuous wedded life with an affair — courtesy of one Mary Davis, a young woman stuck in her own unhappy May-December marriage.

According to the confession Elizabeth provided two days before her own death, she had a fantastic row with her drunken husband when he came home at 2 a.m. one night and Elizabeth accused him of being

“to Mary Davis’s?”

He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.

He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.

He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards.

Unfortunately, this confession broke a protracted* attempt to stick to an implausible “the horse kicked him dead” story whose maintenance seriously complicated any bid to secure clemency for the woman.

She received, instead, a different kind of life: literary immortality that hardly any in Dorchester that gray morning could have aspired to.

Thomas Hardy, not yet the canonical novelist famous enough for his own Monty Python sketch but a 16-year-old architectural apprentice, was among the three or four thousand who braved the inclement weather to witness Brown’s hanging** — the mandatory sentence then for a circumstance the courts would handle differently today.

Even seven decades later, Hardy could recall the vividly sensual effect of this macabre scene.

I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.

and

I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.

Recent film adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The book is available free from Gutenberg.org.

In both her tragic life and her hempen death, Brown is thought to have informed Hardy’s title character in the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, slyly subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.”

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.

-Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

* Everything is relative, of course. In Brown’s instance, less than five weeks separated murder from execution, so she had scarcely had time to be obstinate about withholding the confession.

** Brown was said to have died with great firmness, and the report from the scaffold brings us the classically Victorian detail that executioner William Calcraft, having departed the platform to spring the trap after pinioning his prisoner, was obliged to make a return trip when he realized he’d forgotten to tie down her dress against any immodest billowing.

An ironic precaution, given that we remember this hanging precisely because of Hardy’s captivation with the more refined eroticism of the “wet hanging gown contest” tableau.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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Themed Set: Thomas Hardy

7 comments August 9th, 2010 Headsman

English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, whose gloomy cast of mind makes him particularly suitable for these pages, lived most of his nearly 90 years right next door to death.

Hardy’s work spans the English experience from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War, ever haunted by tragedy and loss. This guy wrote “Dead Man Walking” before Dead Man Walking.

I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.

Bummer.

For the next few posts, Executed Today catches a young Thomas Hardy as witness to public hangings … and an aged Hardy as witness to a world at war.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Themed Sets

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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