1594: Michael Renichon, impoverished assassin

Add comment June 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Confession of Michael Renichon of Templeu, Parson of Bossier, in the County of Namours

Concerning, The bloudy enterprise, which by him should have bene committed upon the person of County Maurice, Prince of Orange, as also, The sentence denounced against hym for that déede, in the Haghe on the third of June 1594.

Printed at Utrecht, by Salomon de Roy, ordinary Printer of the Estates, in their language, and now truely translated into english by R. R.

LONDON Imprinted by John Wolfe. 1594.

Michael Renichon of Templeu, and Parson of Bossier in the County of Namur aforesaid (dispatched with Letters of the Earle of Barlaymont, in the habite of a Souldier, from Brussel, the tenth day of March last:) was by Convoy conducted thence to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernoult: from whence accompanied onely with one of the garrison of the sayd Towne, he was guided to the Towne of Bredau: where being entred, he delivered certaine close sealed Letters, unto the Governour there, which were addressed from the Earle of Barlaymont unto Captayne Larigon Commaunder of the Castle of Tuernoult, importing, that the bringer thereof, was sent thither by expresse commaundement of Archduke Ernestus of Austria, to communicate unto him a certaine enterprise, to be done upon the towne of Bredau.

The Gouernour desirous to be by him further instructed, as well of the cause of his comming thither, as of the particularities of the said enterprise: Renichon first humbly besought him, that it would please him to entertaine him into his service, and then, persisting (though differing and dubling in his assertions, which savored of manifest untruethes) that his matter was just and perfect: Affirmed, that for certaine yeares, he had bene Secretary to the Abbot of Malonne, and for his knowledge and experience, he was by him advaunced to the same place, with the Earle of Barlaymont: from whome hee had after thys manner withdrawen himselfe, onely for the fervent desire hé had to doe him service, with such other the like accomplements.

The Governour finding small probability in hys filed speeches, feared greatly some pretence of waightier matter: and for that cause, caused him forthwith to be conveighed to the Haghe: Where, upon the first of Aprill, (fearing what would ensue) he attempted to strangle himselfe with a corde made of points and stringes of his Armes, fastened to a certayne iron in the Gaole, under which he was found all be blouded, and speechlesse.

Revived now, and come to his speech agayne, one demaunded for what cause he would have committed this acte upon himselfe: whereunto replying, hee confessed volontarily, without proffer of any torture or constraint, as well by word of mouth, on the second of Aprill, as also afterward by his owne hand writing at sundry times, as namely on the twentieth day of Aprill, and last of May, the very absolute trueth of hys comming thither: affirming the speeches uttered by him and fathered uppon the Abbot of Malonne, and Earle of Barlaymont, to bee false and forged, acknowledging further.

That having had long processe in Law against his Parishioners of Bossier, touching the revenues of his Parsonage: as also endamaged through the dayly incursions of the unbrideled souldiours: he was enforced by meere necessity about some two yeares sithence, to abandon his Parsonage, and committing the cure thereof unto a Chaplaine, retired himselfe unto the Towne of Namours, where he supplied the roome of a Scholemaster.

The Earle of Barlaymont, having had some intelligence of my being there, entreated me by some of hys gentlemen, on an Evening to suppe with him: supper being ended, the Earle retired himselfe into hys Chamber, and commaunded me to bee brought in to him: where (his people withdrawen) he asked me how I could with so small allowance content my self, and spend my time, to so little proffite, adding further, that hee knew the meanes how to advaunce my estate, if eyther I would seeke it at his handes, or rouse and plucke up my appaled spirites, for which his honourable courtesies, humbly thanking him, I presented him my best service.

The which now presented, hee tooke occasion to send for me in February last past, by his Chaplaine after supper, falling in discourse with me, in the presence of some other, of an enterprise to be done upon the Towne of Bredau.

Likewise at an other time being entred into his Chamber, he sent for me againe, at which time he tolde mee, that hee was to communicate unto me a matter of greater consequence and importance, and that if I would employ my selfe in the service of the king, he would richly and royally recompence me. Uppon which promise, I vowed my service to him againe.

Not long after this, I was by him commaunded to follow him to Brussels, where the sayd Earle divers and sondry times frequenting the Court, at length commanded me to attend on him thither: with whome passing from chamber to chamber, at last, the Earle entred the chamber of the Archduke Ernestus: whom I then beheld, minding to follow after hym: at which tyme I was partly hindered by the suddaine falling too of the doore: which not fully shut, (listening what might passe betwéene the Archduke and the sayd Earle,) I easely heard them speake Spanish and Latine: and at sundry times, make repetition of recompence and reward: The Earle ready to take hys leave of the Duke, who brought him to the chamber doore: the Duke at his last farewell, sayd, Cumulate & largo foenore satisfaciam. When the Earle returned, he told mee, that they had all that time, conferred about my matters: and that the Archduke had ordained two hundred Phillips Dollors to be delivered me.

Retired now to his lodging, he gave me further to understand that the Archdukes pleasure and full intention was, to roote out, or by a third hand violently to murther the Counte Maurice of Nassau: and for that end and purpose, he had already dispatched certaine other persons, assuring me, that if I would likewise undertake the like action, it should be great advauncement for me and all my fréendes: saying further, that there were allready fiftéene thousand crownes gathered together, to bee disbursed to him, that first should bring to passe the foresaid massacre or murther.

Uppon this point I aunsweared the Earle, that it was an action méerely impertinent to my profession, who had never borne armes: he replied that it was the will and pleasure of the king, and the commaund of the Archduke, and therewithall, fell to perswading me agayne wyth many vehement reasons, in such sort, as I promised to do my uttermost endevor to that ende.

Thereuppon I desired the said Earle, to instruct mee how I might behave my selfe in this enterprise: hee aunsweared, that the Counte Maurice being a yong noble man, very familiar and popular, it were a very easie matter to insinuate himselfe in hys favor: that it must not bee wrought in hast or rashly, but wyth great advise and leysure, That he was to make hys repaire into the Haghe, or such other place where the Counte were most restant: that there, he should under the coullour of teaching a common schoole, expect and waight for the comming of such other as were assigned to the like ende and purpose (whereof there were six and he was the seaventh, who taking advise and councell together uppon one observation made, might easely woorke the depth of their desire: advising me further, that I was to provide my selfe of a paire of good Pistols, with firelockes, the which (biting carefully and clenly kept) I should charge with two or thrée bullets, and upon the first occasion proffered, should shoot through the said Counte, or otherwise murther hym by what devyse or practise I either best could my selfe: or the other which yet were to repayre unto me. In conclusion affirming, that hee who best and first behaved himselfe in this action, should be best and first rewarded.

That there were also other, which were to be made away by like practise, videlicet, Barnevelt, Longolius, and S. Allegonde: of whome, or any of them, if he could procure their death and destruction: he should bee richly likewise recompenced, charginge him especially to alter his name, and to apparell himselfe souldiorlike for this purpose.

These and such other exhortations ended, the Counte Barlaymont caused certayne other persons to bee brought into my presence: of whome, he said that one of them, was of the six above mentioned: to whome he declared that I was lately adopted into their fellowship: upon which spéech, the said party embracing me, called me his Camerado: assuring me that in short time, he would follow me into Holland, for and upon the like occasions.

The said Countie further declared, that the sayde sixe persons are, and have bene ever since the death of the Prince of Parma, and before, notorious murtherers, and that they are allowed gentlemens pay in the Court there, by the King, and uppon any such desperate action, are onely and ever employed against the ennemy.

Thus retyring himselfe from our company, he dispatched hys Secretary incontinently to Stephen de Narra, of whome he received in sundry kindes of quoyne, the foresayde somme of two hundred Dollars, the which was presently by him delivered me.

Being now furnished of all things expedient for my iourney, and ready to depart from Brussels to Andwerpe, I was by one of the sixe persons above mencioned, conducted to the Schuite, who at my very departure signified unto mee, that hee assuredly hoped to have borne me company to Leiden: of whom demaunding where that was, and to what ende: hee aunsweared me, that Leiden was a Towne and an University in Holland, wher the younge Prince of Orange studied, whether hee should likewise be employed, to the intent that insinuating himselfe into his favor, he might with better conveniency bereave hym of hys life.

Thus resolved to obey the Counte of Barlaymonts pleasure and commaund, I first cloathed my selfe souldierlike, named my selfe Michil de Triuier, and arrived at Andwerpe with the forsaid Letters of the County of Barlaymont, addressed to Largion, where (understanding that he was upon occasions departed from Tuernault) I was enforced to alter my course, and returned to Brussels againe: where receiving other Letters of the foresaide County, tooke my way to Louen, Diest, Herentals, and Tuernault, from whence as aforesaid, I came to Bredau.

The generall Estates of the united Provinces of the Low-Countries, duely examining the state of this cause, finding it a matter of very evill example, as also, that in a Country of Justice, where all daungerous and perillous actions and eventes ought to be prevented, and the peace and tranquillity of the same highly preferred and advaunced, estéemed it in their wisedomes a matter not onely not tollerable, but rather severely to bee punished, to the terror and example of all other: and thereuppon have condemned and adjudged, and doe by these presentes condemne and judge the Author of this intended murther, to be presently conveighed from hence to the ordinary place of execution, and there to be beheaded with the sword: and afterwardes, hys body to be quartered, his head to bee put uppon a pole, and the quarters hanged on the foure corners of the Haghe, declaring further his goods to be confiscated.

This was pronounced in the Audience of the Court of Holland, the third of June 1594. And Signed


Under that was written, The Decree of the foresaid Councel. And was subscribed.

J. van Zuilon.

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1697: John Fenwick, bitter

2 comments January 28th, 2012 Headsman

The Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s lifted to power the young stadtholder William of Orange, and made him a couple of noteworthy lifelong enemies.

One was the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose decades-long rivalry with William tracked William’s interesting career all the way to the throne of England.

William III, equestrian. Consider yourself foreshadowed.

Another was Sir John Fenwick, an English nobleman whom William supposedly slagged* when they were fighting together in the Low Countries — and who likewise still carried the enmity when William had become his sovereign.

On this date in 1697, the latter rivalry came to a fatal end for John Fenwick on the headsman’s block. The funny thing was that the stroke turned out to cost King William III his own life as well.

You couldn’t say that Fenwick came late to the Jacobite cause; he’d been a strong adherent of the beleaguered Catholic-esque Stuart dynasty, and signed off on the 1685 execution of its previous Protestant challenger Monmouth.

But if it prosper, none dare call it treason. In 1688, the Low Countries prince with the low estimation of Baronet Fenwick hopped the channel and successfully overthrew the last Stuart monarchking James II.

With the Glorious Revolution, Fenwick’s personal and political were very conveniently aligned in loyalty to the exiled James … except that his formerly patriotic loyalty to James was now the traitorous cause of Jacobitism.

Fenwick kept up his Jacobiting in the 1690s, got arrested and released once, and then finally found himself implicated in a plot to murder William. Though his allies managed to spirit one of the potential witnesses against him away to the continent, Parliament passed — ever so narrowly — a bill of attainder to condemn Fenwick to death. (There’s a more detailed account of the legal and political maneuverings here and here.)

The State his Head did from his Body sever,
Because when living ’twas his chief Endeavour
To set the Nation and its Head together.

That’s politics. Even kings themselves are in mortal peril around here.

A failed assassin in life, Fenwick would blunder Gavrilo Princip-like into accidental success … but only after his own execution.

As a condemned traitor, Fenwick’s estate was seized by the crown, and the king personally claimed his prey’s equine ride (either a horse with a sorrel coat, or a horse named Sorrel, or both).** Not long after Fenwick’s death, this horse stumbled on a molehill, throwing its royal rider. William broke his collarbone in the accident, developed pneumonia, and died — leading Jacobite sympathizers to dote on the animals (both horse and mole) who had authored their enemy’s misfortune.

Illustrious steed, doubtless most worthy of the sky,
To whom the lion, bull, and bear would give place;
What happy meadows bore thee happily?
What happy mother gave you her nutritious teats?
Is it from the land of Erin you are come to oblige your country,
Or is it Glenco or the Fenwick race which produced you?
Whoever thou art, mayst thou prosper, I pray memorable one: and
May saddle never more press thy back, nor bit thy mouth.
Avenger of the human race, when the tyrant dies,
Mayst thou thyself enjoy the liberty thou wilt give to others.

A lovely sorrel enjoys the liberty of a happy meadow. (Nutritious teats not pictured.) (cc) image from SMALLORBIGOFMEN.

* During the Dutch campaign, William “had reflected very severely upon his [Fenwick’s] courage, which occasioned his making returns that provoked the Prince to say, that if he had been a private person he must have cut Sir John’s throat.” Just your basic primate poo-flinging.

** Leaving aside his ultimate fate, quite an understandable move by William: the Fenwicks were famous for their horse husbandry.

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1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

7 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.

A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.


The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

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1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey

21 comments March 22nd, 2009 Thomas Levenson

(Thanks to Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog. Prof. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and author of the forthcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter.)

Early in the morning of March 22, 1699, William Chaloner raged.

Chaloner, a convicted coiner, refused the Newgate Jail Chaplain’s plea to show proper penitence, shouting with “more Passion than Piety,” of his wronged state and unmerited destination (according to his anonymous biographer in the one surviving account of his life). In time, he calmed sufficiently to accept the sacrament, and so proceeded to the execution convoy to be borne from Newgate to the hanging tree at Tyburn (now Marble Arch, just to the west of the old City of London).

There Chaloner’s fury mounted again, and he shouted to the crowd, drawn as always to the spectacle of public hanging days, that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law.” He mounted the ladder to the top of Tyburn’s gibbet. He prayed, and then pulled the hood over his eyes without aid. When the moment came, the executioner’s men pulled the ladder out of the way and Chaloner dangled, twitching and jumping (the “hangman’s dance”) as long as it took –- minutes, at least — for life to choke out of him. Richer men often paid the hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.

The investigator who had sent Chaloner to the noose was not present; or at least nowhere in his copious notes and letters did he admit to curiosity about the fate of a man whose pursuit occupied him for almost three years. The Warden of His Majesty’s Mint had more pressing duties to perform, and so Isaac Newton allowed the date of Chaloner’s death to pass unmarked.

Isaac Newton? That Newton?

Appropriately, Newton himself wound up on the currency.

The accidents of place and time that brought the man who was recognized in his own day as the greatest mind of the age into conflict with Chaloner, an uncommonly gifted common criminal have fascinated me since I first learned of them through reading Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to the implacable Newton, written days before the hanging. In it Chaloner begged, writing “O dear S[i]r nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me.”

What I wanted to answer was the obvious question: how and why did Isaac Newton come to pass judgment on the life of any other man? I had always thought of him as the nearly cloistered scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, his home for more than thirty years. It was there he performed the experiments and the calculations that led him, in 1687, to write his masterwork, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy — better known simply as the Principia -– as well as pursuing his decades-long program of alchemical research.

So how, I wondered, did he end up in London, wallowing in the muck with the capital’s criminal underground?

Not to put too fine a point on it, finding out has turned into a book Newton and the Counterfeiter, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and scheduled for release on June 4. But, to anticipate that longer story, here is the gist: Newton, after Principia found himself an international celebrity, and, as one of Cambridge University’s representatives to the Convention Parliament of 1689 that legitimized William of Orange‘s seizure of the English throne from the deposed Stuart King James II, he had nearly a year to enjoy the acclaim of London and Europe’s thinking and political elites before returning to the quiet of Cambridge, then a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants. It was an intellectual backwater too, especially compared to the big city in which he encountered figures like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke (whom he despised), Samuel Pepys (whom he did not) and so on. So he started, with Locke’s help, to seek a patronage appointment that would allow him to live comfortably in London. It took six years to find the right one, but ultimately he was offered the Warden’s post at the Mint. That job was supposed to be a sinecure, a nearly no-show position that would pay him a very comfortable wage.

And so it would have turned out were it not for the terribly debased state of England’s silver coinage, which had deteriorated to about half its legal weight for a whole host of reasons. So Newton arrived at a time when (a) the Mint was attempting to recall and recoin the entire stock of silver money for the entire country –- all the smaller units of money essential to everyday transactions –- and (b) coining, counterfeiting, was flourishing as enterprising men and women set out to get rich by filling in the gaps in the money supply with coins that never felt the stamp of an official Mint die. As Warden, it became Newton’s duty to see that legal money was produced fast and fairly, and to pursue all those who set up on their own.

Of those who did none were more technically skilled or ambitious than William Chaloner. His is a fascinating story, told at much greater length in my book, in which you see the currents of rapid economic change, class and ambition all converge within this one, barely remembered life. He was born desperate poor, a weaver’s son in Lincolnshire. He ran from his first apprenticeship to London, where he started out at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking porn on street corners. He rose rapidly, first with his clearly impressive gift of gab, and then, after falling in with someone who knew how to gild surfaces, as the central figure in a series of ever grander schemes to counterfeit gold and silver money. He had sidelines as an informer, betraying conspiracies that he would himself set up, but his central gift and fascination was in the creation of fakes. Ultimately, he was one of the first to recognize the power of paper, and he started to counterfeit a variety of the early experiments with paper money and bank instruments.

In this sense Chaloner’s career –- and Newton’s urgent pursuit of him –- offer a window into the birth of the modern idea of money, of finance. And one of the things that fascinated me about this case is the degree to which this old story tracks some of our immediate problems. England’s and Europe’s economies were in rapid revolution in the late seventeenth century. The old idea of money as a chunk of metal with a pretty picture on it could no longer come close to accommodating the kind of enterprises governments and individuals wanted to undertake, from war to the funding of global webs of trade. And so people came up with all kinds of different ways of trying to represent value and exchange and even the idea of the changing worth of an investment over time. And the people making these experiments did not fully understand the implications of each expedient they tried. The last piece of paper Chaloner counterfeited was called a Malt Lottery Ticket, and it was at once simply paper money, a bond, and a gamble. Traders attempted to value these kinds of things in embryonic financial markets -– which would in a couple of decades blow up in a financial collapse that possess some striking similarities to our current predicament. Newton himself would lose a considerable fortune in that collapse, a sum worth a couple of million pounds, maybe more, in 21st century money.

It was that sense of precariousness that made the pursuit of counterfeiters so urgent in the midst of the late 17th century; England’s money supply was genuinely at risk, and no one had a good grasp of what it would take to make both the daily experience of small transactions and the high finance of war and trade go smoothly. So anyone threatening either or both levels of money was public enemy number one.

Of those who tried their hand at currency crime, Chaloner was the most accomplished, and notorious. By his own admission he counterfeited on the order of 30,000 pounds worth of currency over a seven- or eight-year career, an enormous fortune for the day. His big mistake, though, was to challenge Newton directly, accusing him in public of incompetence or fraud in his management of the recoinage of silver money between 1696 and 1698. He laid that charge both in testimony to Parliament and in a pamphlet he had printed for public distribution, and the scandal could genuinely have wounded Newton, were it not for the influence of his friends in power in Parliament at the moment.

It was enough, certainly, to propel Newton into an extraordinary investigation, an exercise of what may be seen as true non-fiction scientific detection. He set up a net of agents and informers throughout the worst neighborhoods and pubs in London, tracking any instance of coining he could find, interrogating suspects at the Tower or in jail, trying to build a web of connections around Chaloner. That story is contained within a collection of several hundred depositions and summaries of interrogations, all signed by Newton, that have survived, largely unexamined until now. Those records show that it took Newton almost two years in all, but aided in the end by listeners whose lives he held at his disposal inside Chaloner’s cell at Newgate, he managed to collect a sufficient weight of testimony to ensure that he could convict a prisoner clever enough to have escaped several previous attempts at prosecution.

The trial itself was something of a sham. Chaloner had feared being charged on the Malt Lottery Ticket forgery, (as we know from the accounts in Newton’s files of informers in the cells) but Newton actually presented evidence of a coining spree that almost certainly did not take place as described. Among other confounding facts, Chaloner was supposed to have made six different denominations of both silver and gold coins in a single day, which would have involved an enormous confusion of tools and materials that ran counter to basic counterfeiting practice.

No matter: the sheer volume of precise detail that Newton’s witnesses were able (or convinced) to provide produced a conviction within a very short time –- the whole trial took no more than an hour or so on March 3, 1699. There was a truncated appeal process -– really just a request for clemency from the crown, which was denied, and Chaloner’s sentence came down.

Formally, he had been found guilty of high treason, an assault upon the crown in the form of the king’s likeness and authority represented on the face of England’s coins. The punishment for high treason was essentially that suffered by William Wallace of Braveheart fame: to be strangled to the point of death, to be disemboweled whilst still living, to be beheaded and then quartered. By the date of Chaloner’s execution, the punishment had eased this far: convicted coiners were drawn to the place of execution on a rough sledge, subject to all the filth and abuse London’s open-sewered streets possessed; then hung until dead, and then, on rare occasions, to suffer post-mortem dismemberment. Chaloner himself was not, so far as any records revealed, actually cut into pieces. (As a gesture to public decency, women convicted of coining or other capital crimes were not supposed to be hung, lest their twitching at rope’s-end seem lewd. So they were burnt instead – though by the eighteenth century it was common to strangle them to death before lighting the pyre. Mercy, after the fashion of the times.)

Levenson lectures on his book at the MIT Writer’s Series.

One last note in a post gone much too long: Newton was involved in a number of counterfeiting investigations, and by some reckonings at least two dozen people went to their deaths as a result. Some historians, notably Frank Manuel, have speculated that Newton pursued this work with implausible eagerness, out of a kind of frustrated blood lust born of his abandoned and unhappy childhood.

This seems to me to be nonsense. The specific historical context matters here: Newton did not author the bloody code, nor did he send everyone he could to the gallows. Rather, the record of his depositions shows him to be simply a relentless practical man doing his job. He used little fish to catch big fish, and at least some of those low on the ladder received their escape from the gibbet. What you can see here, surprisingly, is the birth of a modern idea of a civil service. The Warden -– even Isaac Newton — was simply a man in a job doing the functions of that job, which included organizing the investigation and prosecution of counterfeiters.

What’s striking, of course, is that this civil servant, this bureaucrat, happened to possess the greatest scientific mind in history. And that’s the real sting in this tale. There is a connection between Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters and his attempts to understand nature. He did employ the same resources of concentration and logical organization in his criminal investigations that he did when he tackled any problem. But more than the commonality of work habits, there is, I think this link: Newton can be seen as many people: the mathematician, the theoretical physicist, the empirical experimentalist, the alchemical mystic, the heretically devout religious thinker –- and the government functionary too.

And yet he was, of course, a single man, one with many interests, but ultimately with a consistent ambition, to reduce to order the complexity of any problem which was posed to him. Newton did not expect as Warden to have to chase crooks; when he found out that was part of the job he wrote a rather whiny letter to the Treasury to see if he could wriggle out of the duty. When he found he could not, he responded as he always had to the job at hand.

As one consequence, on this day three hundred and ten years ago, William Chaloner died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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