1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

Add comment September 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

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1776: Thomas Hickey, plotting against George Washington

3 comments June 28th, 2013 Headsman

“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”

Continental Army surgeon Solomon Drowne, July 13, 1776

On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.

That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine wrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.

George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.

Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.

In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.

Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out of prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.

Sadly, Ketcham’s full memorandum has been lost, and as the ensuing trial records are circumspect the “plot” or “plots” in question are a bit of a historical muddle. Roughly, there are two discernible thrusts:

  • A fifth-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
  • A plot against the person of George Washington himself.

Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.

Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.

“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”

The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.

No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.

Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.

The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.

-Washington’s general order, June 28, 1776

Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.

Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)

The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.

Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.

It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.

* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.

** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.

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1782: Captain Joshua Huddy

2 comments April 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1782, Captain Joshua Huddy of the revolutionary New Jersey patriot militia was summarily (and extrajudicially) hanged on the New Jersey coast by the British Tories.

Huddy was a troublesome rascal in civilian life, a regular denizen of courts in his native Salem, Mass., and (upon transplant in 1778) Monmouth County, N.J.

Tory British Loyalists found him troublesome in the bare-knuckled revolutionary conflict in Monmouth, “often engaged in raids and revenge executions, which continued even after the war’s end.”

Huddy mounted various guerrilla raids in the area from 1779; his Loyalist opposite number actually captured him in 1780, but Huddy was freed by his comrades before he could be taken to the British.

Not so lucky this time.

On March 24, 1782, Loyalists overwhelmed Huddy’s fort at Toms River, N.J..

This was, de facto if not de jure, within the compass of those raids occurring after the war’s end, since at five months after Yorktown, the American Revolution was settled in all but name.

Huddy figured to be exchanged for Loyalist prisoners, but word came that a Monmouth County Tory named Philip White had been killed.

The last English royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin,* ordered Huddy’s execution in retaliation-slash-punishment without any form of court-martial. (It seems the Loyalist position was that Huddy had himself been involved in White’s death; the Patriots insisted that Huddy was already in British hands when White was killed.)

A note was found pinned to Huddy’s body, reading,

We the refugees, having with grief long beheld the cruel murders of our brethern, and finding nothing but such measures daily carrying into execution — we, therefore, determine not to suffer without taking vengeance for the numerous cruelties; and thus begin, and, I say, may those lose their liberty who do not follow on, and have made use of Captain Huddy as the first object to present to your view; and further determine to hang man for man while there is a refugee existing. Up goes Huddy for Philip White.

(Two other prisoners taken with Huddy were exchanged, and had the story to tell — including Huddy’s remark that he would “dye innocent and in a good cause.”)

This, of course, caused quite a hue and cry for vengeance on the Patriot side.

George Washington demanded Huddy’s executioner for a bit of tit-for-tat, but although the British repudiated the lawless hanging, they refused to give Washington his man. Richard Lippencott (or Lippincott) instead got a British trial in New York, skated on an only-following-orders defense, and subsequently retired to Canada to live to the ripe old age of 81.

The frustrated proto-Americans resorted to selecting a captured Yorktown officer by lot for a reprisal execution.

This lottery was “won” by the young British officer Charles Asgill, who stood for some months in danger of a politically awkward hanging even as the sides maneuvered towards the official end of the war.

Since Asgill turned out to be a charismatic, youthful officer of unblemished honor, nobody felt good about the situation; even Huddy’s widow asked for Asgill’s life to be spared. (Though that might also be because Huddy stiffed her in the will he scribbled out moments before death, written on the head of the barrel they used to hang him.)

Eventually, pressure from the Revolution’s French patrons — the hostage had a Huguenot mother — helped Asgill avoid hanging.**

Returned to the British, Asgill went on to become a very prominent general.

Nobody ever expiated Captain Joshua Huddy’s hanging.


Memorial for Joshua Huddy at Huddy Park in Highlands, N.J. Image (c) Sheena Chi and used with permission.

* Son of American patriotic luminary Benjamin Franklin. This is why you don’t talk politics with family.

** Upon his release from American custody, Asgill traveled to France to thank personally his royal saviors. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette could hardly have imagined that they would one day soon stand in Huddy’s shoes.

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*

Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.

Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process, often to the fury of spectators. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.

Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.

The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.

As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**

Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.

Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.

The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.

In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.

Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.

Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.

* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”

** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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