1765: Andrew Oliver lynched in effigy to the Liberty Tree

Add comment August 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1765, Boston patriots lynched the merchant designated as the imperial taxman. They only did so in effigy, but the “execution” scared him permanently off the job while also making a gallows-tree into one of the earliest symbols of American independence.

One of the key pre-revolution irritants for the future United States, the 1765 Stamp Act imposed taxes in the form of stamp duties on a variety of printed products, for the purpose of funding the British army deployed to North America. It was a levy long familiar to London lawmakers but it sent the colonies right around the bend, and since the colonies sat no Member of Parliament who could flip an official wig it also popularized the classic revolutionary slogan about “taxation without representation.”*

Enacted in the spring of 1765 and due to take effect in November, the Stamp Act drew immediate outrage in the colonies and especially in that hotbed of subversion, Boston.

There, Andrew Oliver, scion of a shipping magnate clan, was tapped to collect the levy. It figured to be just the latest in a series of lucrative state appointments. How was he to know in advance that this particular legislation would unleash the crazies? Perhaps he should have given more heed to the publication of ominous warnings over the roster of tax collector names.


Boston Post-Boy, August 5, 1765

On the morning of Wednesday, August 14, a crowd of irate Bostonians mobbed the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street (present-day Washington Street) and upon a large elm tree strung up an effigy of Oliver alongside a boot — the footwear comprising a second, punny, effigy of the Stamp Act’s sponsor the Earl of Bute.

“What greater Joy can NEW-ENGLAND see,” ran the menacing note pinned to the mannequin, “Than STAMPMEN hanging on a Tree!” As is clear from the following newspaper account, versions of which circulated widely in New England, these were no mere theatrics but a very proximate physical threat; even the elm’s property owner dared not take down the provocative display for fear that the crowd would pull down his house. Likewise taking the better part of valor, Oliver pledged to anti-tax colonists that he would not take the office, and he kept his word.**


Providence Gazette, August 24, 1765

After this triumphant debut, the elm in question became a common rallying-point for the hotheaded set, a frequent stage for speechifying, rabble-rousing, and fresh instances of popular justice all further to the patriot cause until, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “after a while, it seemed as if the liberty of the country was connected with Liberty Tree.” Of course, it’s all a question of whose liberty; a Tory gloss on this deciduous republican made it “an Idol for the Mob to Worship; it was properly the Tree ordeal, where those, whom the Rioters pitched upon as State delinquents, were carried to for Trial, or brought to as the Test of political Orthodoxy.” When besieged in Boston in 1775-1776, British Tories cut the damned thing down, so for subsequent generations it was only the Liberty Stump.


“The Colonists Under Liberty Tree,” illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, page 109 (1865)

The Liberty Tree is commemorated today at its former site, and forever in verse by revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine.

In a chariot of light from the regions of day,
The Goddess of Liberty came;
Ten thousand celestials directed the way,
And hither conducted the dame.

A fair budding branch from the gardens above,
Where millions with millions agree,
She brought in her hand as a pledge of her love,
And the plant she named Liberty Tree.

The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourished and bore;
The fame of its fruit drew the nations around,
To seek out this peaceable shore.

Unmindful of names or distinctions they came,
For freemen like brothers agree;
With one spirit endued, they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.

Beneath this fair tree, like the patriarchs of old,
Their bread in contentment they ate
Unvexed with the troubles of silver and gold,
The cares of the grand and the great.

With timber and tar they Old England supplied,
And supported her power on the sea;
Her battles they fought, without getting a groat,
For the honor of Liberty Tree.

But hear, O ye swains, ’tis a tale most profane,
How all the tyrannical powers,
Kings, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;

From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Through the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our Liberty Tree.

* Visitors to the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., whose 700,000 residents cast no votes in the Congress they live cheek by jowl with, can find this familiar grievance right on the city’s license plates.

** How far this surly bunch was prepared to go on August 14, 1765, one can only guess at; however, in later years, there would be several instances of Bostonians tarring and feathering various tax collectors. These guys did not do civility politics.

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1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

3 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

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1794: Not Thomas Paine

11 comments July 24th, 2008 Headsman

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine

On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.

Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.

More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.

Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.

Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.

The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.

Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”

[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.

The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.

When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.

During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.

Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.

We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.

Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.

Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.

Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.

A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …

One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:

Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.

I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.

This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.

Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.

Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.

And/or, enjoy this free biography at Google Books.

* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.

** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.

Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:

[audio:God_Save_the_Queen.mp3]

God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.

Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
Patriots vow.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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