1736: James Matthews and Elizabeth Greenley

Add comment November 26th, 2017 Headsman

Little primary documentation about these hangings appears to be conveniently available absent a visit to Williamsburg’s archives, but the bare outline of murder in the colonial servants’ quarters lifts the eyebrow. Was our Bess’s crime connected to the horse thief’s, leaving the shades of two star-crossed lovers in death like Bess and her highwayman of verse?

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
   Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
   Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.


Virginia Gazette, Nov. 5, 1736.


Virginia Gazette, Nov. 26, 1736.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Virginia,Women

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Public Executions,Terrorists,Theft,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1739: Seven of nine Williamsburg malefactors

3 comments November 23rd, 2012 Headsman

No, not that Seven of Nine. We have no further details on offer about these poor souls, but we thought the assortment of crimes — a mother for murdering her bastard child; a highwayman; an overseer for whipping a slave to death — and the editorial rant about the governor‘s abus’d Clemency, made for a colorful slice of life.

Image: Account of a Williamsburg, Va. mass hanging on Nov. 23, 1739

(Virginia Gazette, Nov. 23, 1739.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Virginia,Women

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1677: William Drummond, for Bacon’s Rebellion

3 comments January 20th, 2010 Headsman

“Mr. Drummond, I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall hang in half an hour.”

Virginia Governor William Berkeley didn’t deliver gallows justice as rapidly as promised, but the outcome was just as certain.

Scotsman William Drummond, the former colonial governor of Abermarle and therefore the first governor of North Carolina,

was made to walk to Middle Plantation, about eight miles distant, and tried before a drum-head court-martial, the next day, at the house of James Bray, Esq., under circumstances of great brutality. He was not permitted to answer for himself; his wife’s ring was torn from his finger; he was stripped before conviction, was sentenced at one o’clock and hanged at four. (Source)

There’s nothing worse than a poor winner.

Drummond caught Berkeley’s considerable wrath for associating himself with Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion of frontier settlers demanding lower taxes and more energetic genocide against their Indian neighbors. When Berkeley balked, the movement metastasized into a republican revolution which declared the agent of royal authority in Virginia to have abdicated and proposed to reconstitute it by popular convocation.

It was very much short of an actual attempt to separate from England, but in its form and complaints one easily perceives the germ of the American Revolution a century hence. Sarah Drummond was reported to have been at least as vehement as her hanged spouse, and she is credited with prophesying “the child that is unborn shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country.”

Armed struggle between two desperate factions was truncated by the fatal case of dysentery* contracted by the namesake insurrectionary. His unpleasant and untimely demise crippled the rising rising, and left Drummond as about the most prominent target available for the victorious Berkeley’s fury.

Not that there wasn’t much more to go around — even when the British navy finally landed in late January with reinforcements too late to do any good, a general amnesty Berkeley had not clemency enough to use, and a successor to Berkeley the aging governor did not like one bit. Nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft in his History of the Colonization of the United States writes of the crackdown,

In defiance of remonstrances, executions continued till twenty-two had been hanged.** Three others had died of cruelty in prison; three more had fled before trial; two had escaped after conviction. More blood was shed than, on the action of our present system [i.e., the constitutional government of the United States], would be shed for political offences in a thousand years. Nor is it certain when the carnage would have ended, had not the assembly convened in February, 1677, voted an address “that the governor would spill no more blood.”

Finally the new guy managed to get Drummond on a boat back to the mother country with an unflattering report of his conduct. The crotchety septuagenarian, who had been a spry mid-30’s courtier when first appointed Virginia governor by Charles I, was coldly received by Charles II. “The old fool,” remarked the sovereign, “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

* “The bloodie flux” was an unsatisfying avenger for his foes, as indicated by the doggerel

“Bacon is Dead, I am sorry at my hart
That lice and flux should take the hangman’s part”

** Some sources put the total number executed at 23, not 22; I have been unable to locate the source of this discrepancy.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,North Carolina,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason,USA,Virginia

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