1777: James Molesworth, in the words of the Founding Fathers

Add comment March 31st, 2016 Headsman

John Adams to Abigail Adams

Philadelphia
March 31, 1777

I know not the Time, when I have omitted to write you, so long. I have received but three Letters from you, since We parted, and these were short ones. Do you write by the Post? If you do there must have been some Legerdemain. The Post comes now constantly once a Week, and brings me News Papers, but no Letters. I have ventured to write by the Post, but whether my Letters are received or not, I dont know. If you distrust the Post, the Speaker or your Unkle Smith will find frequent Opportunities of conveying Letters.

I never was more desirous of hearing frequently from Home, and never before heard so seldom. We have Reports here, not very favourable to the Town of Boston. It is said that Dissipation prevails and that Toryism abounds, and is openly avowed at the Coffee Houses. I hope the Reports are false. Apostacies in Boston are more abominable than in any other Place. Toryism finds worse Quarter here. A poor fellow, detected here as a Spy, employed as he confesses by Lord Howe and Mr. Galloway to procure Pilots for Delaware River, and for other Purposes, was this day at Noon, executed on the Gallows in the Presence of an immense Crowd of Spectators. His Name was James Molesworth. He has been Mayors Clerk to three or four Mayors.

I believe you will think my Letters, very trifling. Indeed they are. I write in Trammells. Accidents have thrown so many Letters into the Hands of the Enemy, and they take such a malicious Pleasure, in exposing them, that I choose they should have nothing but Trifles from me to expose. For this Reason I never write any Thing of Consequence from Europe, from Philadelphia, from Camp, or any where else. If I could write freely I would lay open to you, the whole system of Politicks and War, and would delineate all the Characters in Either Drama, as minutely, altho I could not do it, so elegantly, as Tully did in his Letters to Atticus.

We have Letters however from France by a Vessell in at Portsmouth — of her important Cargo you have heard. There is News of very great Importance in the Letters, but I am not at Liberty. The News, however, is very agreable.


John Hancock to George Washington

Philada
April 4[-8], 1777

Sir,

The enclosed Resolves of Congress, which I have the Honour of transmitting, will naturally claim your Attention from their great Importance.

The Regulations relative to the Payment of the Troops and the Department of the Paymaster General, will I hope be the Means of introducing Order and Regularity into that Part of the Army; where, it must be confessed, they were extremely wanted.

General Gates having laid before Congress the Proceedings and Sentence of a Court Martial on a certain James Molesworth who was accused and found guilty of being a Spy, they immediately approved the same. He has since suffered the Punishment due to his Crime. From his repeated Confession, it appears, that Mr Galloway was extremely active in engaging him to undertake this infamous Business, and was the Person employed to make the Bargain with him. He says indeed, Lord Howe was present: but from the Description he gave of his Person, it is supposed he must be mistaken.

The Congress have directed Genl Gates to take Genl Fermoy with him to Ticonderoga, and such other french Officers as he may think proper. Genl St Clair being ordered to Ticonderoga, but previously to repair to this City to wait the further Order of Congress, you will please to direct him to repair here accordingly as soon as possible. I have the Honour to be with the most perfect Esteem & Respect Sir Your most obed. & very hble Serv.

John Hancock Presidt

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1864: William Howe, deserter

3 comments August 26th, 2015 Headsman

From the Philadelphia Daily Age, Aug. 30, 1864.


In view of the coming draft the Government has found it necessary to hang a man.

The victim selected was a poor man, with a wife and children living in Perkiomen township, Montgomery county. He was a small farmer, with six acres, and engaged occasionally in the manufacture of tobacco and cigars. He lived in a Democratic county and township, where trouble was possible as to the draft, and certain at the election.

He was a man of good character, and ordinarily of gentle disposition. His dying words were: “I commend my wife and little ones to the charity of the world, and I ask pardon of those I may have injured and hope they will forgive me and pray for my soul.”

He was a brave man, had proved it on the battle-field, and as the press report says he told his counsel, “he faced the last music like a soldier.”

Such, in brief, was William H. Howe, of Montgomery county, who, on Friday last, was hanged at Fort Mifflin, where, one of the “loyal” newspapers of this city remarks, “the proceedings were conducted most harmoniously.”


Fort Mifflin as it appeared in 1870. William Howe was the only prisoner ever known to have been executed there.

But this is not all: the Government, in selecting this victim and making this example, was determined to show the Democrats of Montgomery county, that no antecedent merits or services could soften its heart or mitigate its doom of vengeance.

Howe was one of those unfortunate men who, excited by prevalent enthusiasm, and imagining that the authorities would protect their soldiers, enlisted two years ago in a Pennsylvania volunteer regiment. He entered the service in August, 1862, just before Antietam — when Pope‘s army was defeated, and Washington was threatened, and Mr. Lincoln frightened out of his wits.

Howe was one of those of whom Mr. Seward wrote to Mr. Dayton: “Our new levies are coming in in great numbers and in high spirits.” He went through the whole campaign at Fredericksburg, being

one of the five men who came off the field with the colors of his regiment! He exchanged his musket for an Enfield rifle, and again went upon the field with our skirmishers, and remained there all night till next day. He escaped by swimming the Rappahannock river.

Such were his merits, who was ignominiously hanged last Friday.

Now, a word as to his delinquencies. We again quote the loyal reports:

At the time he left the regiment he was suffering from inflammation of the bowels, and the regimental hospital being burned down, and having neither surgeons nor medicines, he, with some twenty others, determined to look out for themselves for treatment and reported themselves to the hospitals at Washington. Afterwards he and Augustus Beiting, a member of his company, returned to their homes.

For some two months afterwards Howe was confined to his bed.

This, we presume, was called “desertion.”

Two poor fellows, wasted by the most agonizing of diseases, with no hospital roof to cover them, and, mark this! gentle reader, who hear of champagne dinners and tableaux in our suburban hospitals, “having neither surgeons nor medicines,” wander back to their homes, and lay their wearied limbs and throbbing temples on the humble bed in Perkiomen. This was the initiate crime, though not the one for which he died. Let us see what that was, for we have no wish to do injustice to the executioners. We do not at all agree with the Press, which says “that having once given the facts, a further statement is superfluous.”

The scene of the crime was his home in Montgomery county.

That county has a Perkiomen township, and a Chiltern township, not many miles apart. Little over a year ago, in the latter township, a poor but most respectable white man, Mrs. Butler’s gardener, walking quietly on a public road, was shot down like a dog by a negro soldier, and died in agony.

For this dark deed of blood, the penalty was a mild conviction for manslaughter, — which it as much resembled as it did arson or burglary, — a sentence for a few years, and, if we mistake not, a pardon.

The negro ruffian, unlike poor Howe, had never done a deed of valor, or probably fired a musket till he pulled the trigger at the wayfarer on the Chiltern lanes. He was one of the League pets — a Chestnut street darling, and had a claim on the sympathy and mercy of those who judge always gently a negro’s fault.

Not so William H. Howe, the white Perkiomen soldier.

His deed of wrong was this: About midnight of the 21st June, 1863, he was awakened from a deep sleep — till then the sleep of innocence — by an alarm supposed to be given by the companion who had accompanied him home, that the Provost Marshal was coming to arrest him.

The first impulse was incredulity. The next, to try to escape. The last, resistance.

The words Provost Marshal, associated in a soldier’s mind with thoughts of severity, and cruelty, and sternness, have an awful sound by day or night. Those who think all Provost Marshals resemble the effeminate fribbles who superintend the draft in our streets, can form no idea of the real spectre.

Howe seized his musket, probably the one he brought in triumph from the bloody field of Fredericksburg, and fired it in the darkness, killing the enrolling officer.

The negro’s deliberate homicide is manslaughter. The white man’s rash or passionate misadventure is capital murder.

“I never,” said Howe on the scaffold, “sought the life of the man I killed. I never wished it, and I feel God will pardon me for taking it as I did.”

This, then, is the deed for which this poor fellow was condemned and died — and for which, in view of the draft, no mercy was found in the hearts of Joseph Holt and Abraham Lincoln.

Of the trial by some unknown, irresponsible military court, of which the prisoner’s prosecutor was the President, we do not care to speak. We think of it as history does of the judges who, a hundred years ago, sent to his bloody grave, according to the forms of martial law, a gallant English sailor, whom the hard-hearted monarch of that day refused to pardon, but executed “to encourage the others.” It is a sad record altogether.

And then the feeble attempt at a habeas corpus in the Federal Court, and the citation of Wolfe Tone‘s case, with its suggestive hint at suicide! The whole thing seems like a hideous mockery.

The Judge’s idea that Howe, like Tone, had waived the writ by appearing before the court martial, seems a little odd, but we do not presume to criticise judicial action, and we are very sure the Judge must have been reluctant to deny relief to a Montgomery county man, one of his former constituents. The writ, however, was refused, and last Friday, the white man was hanged, and the enrolling officer was avenged.

Howe died like a brave man. He parted with his wife and three little children with deep emotion, and then his work was done.

He was taken in an ambulance by a back way from the Penitentiary, now, it seems, used as a military prison, to the river and thence in a boat to Fort Mifflin.

“Neither guard nor prisoner,” says the North American, “uttered one word during the run down to the Fort.” There was quite a crowd to welcome him.

“The steamer Don Juan,” says the Press, “was chartered for the purpose and took down the members of the Press club.”

“The gallows,” kindly loaned by the Inspectors of the County Prison, says the same paper, “was the one on which the Scupinskis, Arthur Spring and Maddocks were hanged.” In other words, the brave Fredericksburg soldier — the Perkiomen volunteer — was ostentatiously disgraced by being put on a level in this respect with mean, mercenary murderers — and Howe died without a murmur or complaint, keeping his word that “he would face the music like a soldier.” And thus the hideous narrative concludes: “The body was taken down and placed in charge of Mr. Black, the Government undertaker, who had it embalmed yesterday afternoon and sent to Howe’s widow.”

And it will be carried to his home — and the embalmer, proud of his skill, will take off the coffin lid, and the widow and the three little children will look at the swollen and blackened features of him they loved so well, and they will think of the pride with which he used to tell, and the interest with which they used to listen to the tale of his rescuing the regimental flag at Fredericksburg — and the neighbors will come and look, and in many a lacerated and agonized heart the question will be asked, “why was there no mercy for him?”

The Fishing Creek Confederacy details Civil War draft resistance in a different Democratic region of Pennsylvania.

To us the whole thing seems simply horrible; and badly as we think of it, doubly atrocious will have been the deed, if the reason given for this execution be the true one. The Press, which may certainly be considered the organ of the Administration here, thus accounts for the severity in this case:

The deceased exhibited great bravery at the first battle of Fredericksburg, and after several color bearers had been shot down, he seized the standard and bore it through the heat of the contest. These were noble traits, which he is yet entitled to. It is very evident that he did not intend to kill Mr. Bartlett, but society at that time, in that part of Pennsylvania, was tainted with Copperheadism, and it may be well supposed that the draft resisting, dark lantern conspirators had the effect to instil in the mind of Howe some of the poison for which their victim was hung instead of themselves.

According to this, this brave soldier was hanged because he lived in a Democratic region. The negro of the Chiltern Hills was spared because Government bankers, and Abolition lecturers and shoddy contractors there do congregate, and the township gives a Republican majority.

The patience of the people of Pennsylvania really seems inexhaustible; and all we can hope to do is to help to make up the awful record of atrocity for the long deferred, but inevitable day of retribution.

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1778: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, triggering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal?

3 comments November 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1778, the hanging in Philadelphia of two elderly Quakers for treason perhaps set in motion Benedict Arnold’s notorious defection from the American Revolution.

Brotherly love was a little scarce on the ground in Philly after Gen. William Howe occupied it for the British in 1777-1778.*

British control of the cradle of liberty exacerbated the social tensions swirling around the revolution, most particularly between radical revolutionaries and those of a more go-along, get-along variety. Plenty of North Americans, after all, were British loyalists. Plenty of others were fine with political independence but horrified at the more radically democratic ideas of, say, Tom Paine.

Pennsylvania had proven a relative bastion for militants, who authored its progressive 1776 constitution and imposed loyalty tests to disenfranchise Tories and neutrals. When Howe withdrew from Philadelphia, these elements returned, loaded for bear. Or in this case, Quakers.

Members of this sect were suspect to begin with for pacifism, which is the sort of ideology that would fail a loyalty test. Spurning a Moravian pitch for exemption from the oath, the authorities complained of

persons among us, preferring a slavish dependence on the British King, from prejudice, expectation from lucrative offices, or the most unworthy motives, and screening themselves from the notice of Government, by a professed neutrality, have, nevertheless, as soon as opportunity offered declared themselves in favour of our Enemies, and became active against the Liberties of America

Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, Quakers of an advanced age who had collaborated with the British, were thought to have done precisely this perfidious thing. In the sentence delivered to Roberts (the men had separate trials), the judge insisted his defendant was either with liberty, or against it.

Treason is a crime of the most dangerous and fatal consequence to society; it is of a most malignant nature; it is of a crimson colour and of a scarlet dye. Maliciously to deprive one man of life, merits the punishment of death, and blood for blood is a just restitution. What punishment, then, must he deserve, who joins the enemies of his country, and endeavours the total destruction of the lives, liberties, and property of all his fellow citizens; who wilfully aids and assists in so impious a cause; a cause which has been complicated with the horrid and crying sin of murdering thousands, who were not only innocent, but meritorious; and aggravated by burning some of them alive, and starving others to death. It is in vain to plead, that you have not personally acted in this wicked business; for all who countenance and assist, are partakers in the guilt.**

The wholesale purge such a logic would license was thankfully not forthcoming, because even revolutionary sentiment was uncomfortable with the treatment of these exemplars. Roberts’s own jury had to be cajoled into a conviction, and most of its members joined thousands of Philadelphians of different political stripes petitioning for mercy.

The post-Howe military governor of Philadelphia at this time was none other than Benedict Arnold, still an American general but putting himself ostentatiously into the tug-of-war over the proper revolutionary line with his profligate living and his courtship of a British-friendly merchant‘s daughter.

Arnold stuck his thumb in the radicals’ eye by hosting a party on the eve of this date’s hanging for society ladies of doubtful [revolutionary] virtue … prompting a fulsome protest by Joseph Reed

Treason, disaffection to the interests of America, and even assistance to the British interest, is called openly only error of judgment, which candour and liberality will overlook … it would astonish you to observe the weight of interest excited to pardon [Carlisle and Roberts] … will you not think it extraordinary that General Arnold made a public entertainment the night before last, of which not only common Tory ladies, but the wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the State, and now with the enemy at New York, formed a very considerable number. The fact is literally true.

Left- and right-wing factions of the revolution crystallized around Reed and Arnold, and the abuse of the more-patriotic-than-thou set soon wore on Gen. Arnold. The latter put his contacts with un-revolutionary Philadelphia to work — specifically, that merchant’s daughter’s former suitor, British Major John Andre. Arnold and Andre began their correspondence six months after Carlisle and Roberts hanged; little more than a year later, Arnold ditched the American revolution … and entered the American lexicon.

* This was the winter George Washington famously spent at Valley Forge, 20 miles from Philly.

** The sentence is as printed in in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Nov. 6, 1778. The magistrate concludes the sentence by pointing out that in Pennsylvania’s “leniency,” treason was punished “only” with hanging … while in the mother country, it could still get you drawn and quartered.

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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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1776: Nathan Hale, with regrets

4 comments September 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques in New York contend to mark the execution spot.

Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.

When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.

As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.

The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Gah.

If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:*

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.

* The play was all the rage among patriots; Patrick Henry might have plucked his immortal “give me liberty or give me death” line from it, too. (“It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”)

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

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