1707: Jack (Sam) Hall, chimney sweep and robber

1 comment December 17th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.

Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”

It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”

The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**

* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).

** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman

2 comments August 13th, 2010 Headsman

On or around this date in 1776,* a couple of blacks in Suriname (both slave and free) were executed for unrelated crimes … notably a free man named Neptune whose coolness under horrific torture is related by John Gabriel Stedman in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.

Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.

Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.

Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo

If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.

But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …

Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.

The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.

Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: “At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint.” -ed. ]

Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.


Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)

If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.

I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.

Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.

The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)

But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)

* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.

The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Murder,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Suriname,Wrongful Executions

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

6 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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