1594: Edward Osbaldeston

Add comment November 16th, 2019 Edward Osbaldeston

(Thanks to Elizabethan Catholic martyr Edward Osbaldeston for the guest post on the 16 November, 1594 York execution of Elizabethan Catholic martyr Edward Osbaldeston. We offer here the letter from his own hand recounting the circumstances of his capture, as published subsequently by Richard Challoner. -ed.)

I was apprehended at Towlerton by Mr. Thomas Clark, the apostate priest, upon St. Hierome’s day [September 30], at night; a thing much more to my comfort, than at any other time; for that I had such a special patron to commend myself to, and such a stout champion under Christ; and, besides, it pleased God, much to my comfort, to let this sign of his love fall unto me that day above all others; for that it was God’s great goodness to call me to the honour of priesthood; and that, upon St. Hierome’s day, I said my first mass, and consecrated the blessed body and blood of my Saviour Jesus Christ, and received him with great reverence and devotion, and ever since have honoured St. Hierome [Jerome]. And the morning before I came forth, I made my prayer to blessed St. Hierome; and, in his merits, I offered myself a sacrifice to God, and recommended myself to him, to direct me to his will and pleasure, and that I might walk aright in my vocation, and follow St. Hierome, as long as God should see it expedient for his church, and most for his honour and glory: and if it pleased him still to preserve me, as he had done before, I never would refuse to labour, or murmur at any pain or travail; and if it should please his majesty to suffer me to fall into the prosecutors’ hands, that then it would please his infinite goodness to protect me to the end; which I have no doubt but he will, after so many and so great goodnesses and gifts, as he hath bestowed on me over all my life, which are without number and inexplicable: wherefore my hope and trust is much helped, that now be will be most sure unto me, since this is the weightiest matter that I ever was about in my life: and so considering this, and infinite others, such like, I find great comfort, and fully trust in God’s goodness, and distrust only in myself; but in him that comforteth me, I can do all things. And this actual oblation of myself that morning, and this that ensueth, maketh me very comfortable, and bringeth me into many good and heavenly cogitations, feeling his strength so much as I have done in lesser matters, and further off from him than this is: therefore I nothing doubt, by his grace, but he will grant me to finish that which was for him, and by him, begun; which I pray God I may worthily do when his good will and pleasure is, and not before: and that I may not wish or desire any thing in this life but what may best please him and honour him, and our blessed lady his mother, and all the court of heaven, the most, and edify the people, and strengthen them in the way to Jesus, the king of bliss.

The manner [of my apprehension] was thus: Abraham Sayre and I came to the Inn a little before Mr. Clark, and we all came before night. I knew him not fully; for I thought he had been in the south; but at supper I looked earnestly at him, and I thought it was he, and yet I still persuaded myself that he knew me not, and if he should know me, he would do me no harm: which fell out otherwise; God forgive him for it. For when we were going to bed, he went and called the curate and constable, and apprehended us, and watched us that night, and came with us to York, and stood by when I was examined before the council, but said nothing then, that I feared; and he was present afterwards when I was called again; and since I have been nothing said unto; what will follow, God knoweth: but I will not be partial to myself, but prepare me for death, and what else may befal unto me. Now I pray you, for God’s sake, what you hear or learn let me know; and what is the best course for me to take in all points; and how my brethren have behaved themselves in this case, that have gone before me; and, for myself, I yield me wholly to obedience to you in that blessed society and number in the castle: and desire, in all points, to live in discipline and order, and as the common live; and what I have, or shall have, it shall be in common. — And therefore I pray you direct me in all things, both for my apparel and diet, and every thing; and as my brethren have gone before me, so would I follow in the humblest sort.

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1595: Henry Walpole, martyred at York

Add comment April 7th, 2019 Headsman

Jesuit priest Henry Walpole died a traitor’s death outside York on this date in 1595.

The Cambridge-educated Walpole was a recusant Catholic of about 23 years and seemingly no more than moderate religious commitment when he witnessed the scaffold martyrdom of Edmund Campion.

After beholding such a sight — and, it is said, the spatter of the saint’s very blood upon his garments — a now-radicalized Walpole published a verse eulogy for Campion* and fled for the continent to take up holy orders. He spent a decade in studies and ministry in Italy, France, Spain, and the Low Countries.

But he never managed a spell as an underground priest on native soil, for when putting ashore in Yorkshire in December 1593 he was instantly betrayed and arrested, and passed the remainder of his days in various dungeons, and upon various racks. As a former lawyer, Walpole found a clever line of argument in his case, noting that the law required priests landing in England to surrender themselves to authorities within three days, and he had not violated it since he had been captured within hours.

The crown had an even better reply, in the form of the invitation to swear the Oath of Supremacy admitting Queen Elizabeth the head of the English church, the demand upon which so many priests founded their martyrdom. Walpole refused as he ought and, together with another priest named Alexander Rawlins, went to his death at the “York Tyburn” gallows in Knavesmire, his heart perhaps fortified by remembrance of the words with which he had once celebrated Campion.

Can dreary death, then, daunt our faith, or pain?
Is’t lingering life we fear to loose, or ease?
No, no, such death procureth life again.
‘Tis only God we tremble to displease,
Who kills but once, and ever since we die
Whose whole revenge torments eternally.

We cannot fear a mortal torment, we.
These martyrs’ blood hath moistened all our hearts:
Whose parted quarters when we chance to see
We learn to play the constant Christian parts.
His head doth speak, and heavenly precepts give
How we that look should frame ourselves to live.

His youth instructs us how to spend our days;
His flying bids us learn to banish sin;
His straight profession shows the narrow ways
Which they must walk that look to enter in;
His home return by danger and distress
Emboldeneth us our conscience to profess.

His hurdle draws us with him to the cross;
His speeches there provoke us for to die;
His death doth say, this life is but a loss;
His martyr’d blood from heaven to us doth cry;
His first and last and all conspire in this,
To shew the way that leadeth us to bliss.

Blessed be God, which lent him so much grace;
Thanked by Christ, which blest his martyr so;
Happy is he which seeth his Master’s face;
Cursed all they that thought to work him woe;
Bounden be we to give eternal praise
To Jesus’ name, which such a man did raise.

Although condemned to hanging, drawing, and quartering, both Rawlins and Walpole were graciously suffered to die at the end of the rope before the horrors of disemboweling and quartering were inflicted on their lifeless corpses.

* The publisher of this poem was fined £100 and sentenced to have his ears cropped … but he did not attempt to mitigate his pains by exposing the identity of the author.

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1786: Five men at York Castle, under the “Bloody Code”

1 comment August 19th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1786, five young men were hanged together before a large crowd in front of York Castle. They were William Nicholson, John Charlesworth, James Braithwaite, William Sharp and William Bamford.

William Knipe’s Criminal chronology of York castle; with a register of criminals capitally convicted and executed at the County assizes, commencing March 1st, 1379, to the present time records,

The above were all executed at Tyburn without Micklegate Bar.

Nicholson, aged 27, labourer, for stealing two geldings, the property of Robert Athorpe Esq., of Dinnington. Thomas Whitfield, Mr. Athorpe’s man, was the principal witness against him.

John Charlesworth, of Liversedge, clothier, for breaking into the house of Susan Lister, of Little Gomersal, single woman, and stealing various articles of trifling value; also further charged with stopping William Hemmingway, of Mirfield, clothier, and robbing him of three guineas and a half and some silver and copper. He was 21 years of age.

Braithwaite, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, of Long Preston, innkeeper, and stealing various article therefrom. He was a hawker and a pedlar, and 30 years of age.

William Sharp, labourer, aged 26, and William Bamford, labourer, aged 28, for robbing Duncan M’Donald, of Sheffield, button-maker, by breaking into his house, and carrying away a number of horn combs, a silver threepenny-piece, and fourpence in copper. Sharp was a native of Conisbro’, and Bamford, a native of Clifton.

It was noted that Nicholson, Charlesworth, Sharp and Bamford all left a widow and children behind, but Braithwaite had “two wives and three children by his lawful one, and two by the other, to whom he gave £70, and appeared most attached to her, as he would not permit the former to take leave of him.”

This British Library article on crime and punishment in Georgian Britain explains why these individuals were punished so severely for what, to modern eyes, look like relatively minor offenses:

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death—by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason — even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage — could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.

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1322: John de Mowbray, rebel lord

Add comment March 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1322, northern baron John de Mowbray was hanged at York as a traitor.

He numbered among the aristocratic opposition to Edward II and to Edward’s favorite Hugh Despenser.

Mowbray was with said opposition’s chief, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster when the latter was trapped and defeated by Andrew Harclay at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

The surrender of these rebel lords offered the king a chance to clear many of his rivals from the board, and he did not miss it: something like two dozen nobles were put to death in its aftermath, Mowbray among them.

According to The Washingtons: A Family History, Volume 3, which notes Mowbray as a paternal ancestor of the American protopresident,

His body was left to hang and rot for an extended period before the vengeful king and the Despensers finally permitted his family to take it down and bury it in the church of the Dominican friars at York. Well into the nineteenth century, a legend proclaimed that his armor had been hung on an oak tree near Thirsk, and that ‘at midnight it may yet be heard creaking, when the east wind comes soughing up the road from the heights of Black Hambleton.’

Mowbray’s wife and son were locked in the Tower of London and their estates redistributed to more loyal subjects. They’d be restored to both liberty and property after Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer overthrew Edward.

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1634: John Bartendale survives hanging and burial

1 comment March 27th, 2017 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for (another) guest post. This report in Baring-Gould’s Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events glosses a rhyming Latin squib of Richard Brathwait‘s Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England, several versions of which survive.)

JOHN BARTENDALE,
The Piper.

In the reign of King Charles I a strolling musician, a poor piper, named John Bartendale, was brought, in 1634, before the Assizes, and was convicted of felony.

He received sentence, and on March 27th was hung on the gallows, outside Micklegate Bar, York. There were no houses there at that time — it was open country. After he had remained swinging for three-quarters of an hour, and was to all appearance dead, he was cut down, and buried near the place of execution. The officers of justice had accomplished their work carelessly in both particulars, as it afterwards transpired, for he had been neither properly hung nor properly buried.

Earth has a peculiarly invigorating and restorative effect, as has been recently discovered; and patients suffering from debility are by some medical men now-a-days placed in earth baths with the most salutary effects. In the case of gangrened wounds a little earth has been found efficacious in promoting healthy action of the skin. John Bartendale was now to experience the advantages of an earth-bath.

That same day, in the afternoon, a gentleman, one of the Vavasours of Hazlewood, was riding by, when he observed the earth moving in a certain place. He ordered his servant to alight; he himself descended from his horse; and together they threw off the mould, and discovered the unfortunate piper alive. He opened his eyes, sat up, and asked where he was, and how he came there. Mr. Vavasour and his servant helped him out of his grave, and seated him on the side. The man was sent for water and other restoratives, and before long the news had spread about down Micklegate that the poor piper was come to life again. A swarm of wondering and sympathising people poured out to congratulate John the Piper on his resurrection, and to offer their assistance. A conveyance was obtained, and as soon as Bartendale was in a sufficient condition to be moved he was placed in it covered with Mr. Vavasour’s cloak, — for he had been stripped by the executioner before he was laid in the earth — and was removed again to York Castle.

It was rather hard that the poor fellow, after he had obtained his release, should have been returned to his prison; but there was no help for it. The resurrection of the piper was no secret; otherwise Mr. Vavasour would doubtless have removed him privately to a place of security till he was recovered, and then have sent him into another part of the country.

At the following Assizes, Bartendale was brought up again. It was a nice point of law whether the man could be sentenced to execution again after the Sheriff had signed his affidavit that the man had been hung till he was dead. Mr. Vavasour was naturally reluctant to supply the one link in the chain of evidence which established the identity of the prisoner with the piper who had been hung and buried for felony; he made earnest intercession that the poor fellow might be reprieved, popular sympathy was on his side, the judge was disposed to mercy, and Bartendale was accorded a full and free pardon; the judge remarking that the case was one in which the Almighty seemed to have interfered in mercy to frustrate the ends of human justice, and that therefore he was not disposed to reverse the decree of Providence according to the piper a prolongation of his days on earth.

Drunken Barnaby in his “Book of Travels” alludes to Bartendale, when he stops at York:

Here a piper apprehended,
Was found guilty and suspended;
Being led to t’fatal gallows,
Boys did cry, “Where is thy bellows?
Ever must thou cease thy tuning,”
Answered he, “For all your cunning,
You may fail in your prediction.”
Which did happen without fiction;
For cut down, and quick interred,
Earth rejected what was buried;
Half alive or dead he rises,
Got a pardon next Assizes,
And in York continued blowing —
Yet a sense of goodness showing.

After his wonderful deliverance the poor fellow turned hostler, and lived very honestly afterwards.

When asked to describe his sensations on being hung, he said that when he was turned off, flashes of fire seemed to dart before his eyes, and were succeeded by darkness and a state of insensibility.

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1828: Charles French, York printer

Add comment October 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1828, a young printer’s assistant morally corrupted by the theater went to the gallows at York, Upper Canada (soon to become Toronto, Ontario).

After boozing it up at a performance of Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London* at Frank’s Hotel, 21-year-old Charles French fell into a drunken row with Edward Knowlan or Nowlan and shot him dead, in a case that occasioned a local moral panic about the dangerous carousing nurtured by the nightlife in the small frontier town.

Frank’s Hotel, York’s very first theatrical venue, was “neither under order nor restraint,” French’s respectable parents pleaded in their unsuccessful clemency missive. It was “the haunt of the gay and dissolute, the idle and the profligate, the ruffian and woman of bad fame, those who show in the light of the moon were there — and from its temptations few parents or masters could restrain the youth.” (Source) Theater troupes were banned from York stages for five years after the French affair.

French’s defense had likewise attempted to raise doubts about his mental competency, and although this worked as well as it usually did in a 19th century courtroom there was no small sentiment for French’s reprieve: (K)nowlan was a notorious goon, and the circumstances of the fray seemed muddled enough to bring the shooter’s degree of calculation into question. Two alleged accomplices, acquitted in separate trials, swore that Knowlan had menaced French before French shot him.

The close clemency call carried a sharp political undertone. French was an understudy of the reform publisher William Lyon Mackenzie and his victim a Tory brawler who dealt out bruises in the service of Upper Canada’s “Family Compact” ruling clique. That his petition for mercy was rejected by Lt. Gov. Peregrine Maitland eventually became one of the (lesser) briefs against the Family Compact advanced a decade later during the Upper Canada Rebellion.

* The period’s several Tom and Jerry plays — no overt relationship is known between them and the 20th century Tom and Jerry cartoons — derived from Pierce Egan‘s smash hit Life in London, or, the day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis. The title characters capture vignettes around the city, naturally not excluding the condemned hold at Newgate, which they tour with their friend Bob Logic on the pretext of consoling one of Logic’s old friends.

An opportunity presented itself to our TRIO to visit the Condemned Yard in Newgate. “It was a mournful sight,” Logic observed to the Corinthian; “but as it was the intention of Jerry not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London, he had been induced to make the proposition to Hawthorn; yet, he was free to confess, it was more especially on his own account, as he was compelled to attend, and companions would, therefore, prove very agreeable to his feelings upon such a melancholy occasion.” “We will accompany you, Bob,” replied Tom and Jerry.

The Plate represents the Morning of Execution, and the malefactors having their irons knocked off previous to their ascending the fatal platform that launches them into eternity. The Yeoman of the Halter [i.e., the hangman — at the time of Egan’s writing this would have been John Foxton] is in waiting to put the ropes about them. The Clergyman is also seen administering consolation to these unfortunate persons in such an awful moment; and the Sheriffs are likewise in attendance to conduct the culprits to the place of execution, to perform the most painful part of their duty, in witnessing the offended laws of their country put in force. It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the pen nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice, or convey a description of the “harrowed feelings” of the few spectators that are admitted into the Condemned Yard upon such an occasion. The tolling of the bell, too, which breaks in upon the very soul of the already agonized malefactor, announcing to him that he has but a few minutes to live, adds a terrific solemnity to the proceedings: —

Hear it not, Duncan, for ’tis a knell
That summons thee to heav’n or to hell.

The Condemned Yard is long, but narrow, and contains a great number of cells, one above another, forming three stories in height. Each cell measures nine feet in length, and six in width. [Compare with Dickens’s description -ed.] Every indulgence is allowed to those prisoners immediately the “death-warrant” arrives at Newgate, ordering them to prepare for execution. They are then allowed to remain in the Large Room (which the Plate represents), in order that the Clergyman may attend upon them as often as they desire it, and who, generally, previous to the morning on which they are to suffer, sits up praying with them the whole of the night. It is really astonishing, upon most of these occasions, to witness the resignation and fortitude with which these unhappy men conduct themselves: many of the most hardened and desperate offenders, from the kindness, attention, and soothing conduct of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, who is indefatigable in administering consolation to their troubled minds, have become the most sincere penitents; nay more, several prisoners, who have received a free pardon after having been ordered for execution, have since publicly declared that they should never again be in such a fit state to meet eternity. The criminal on the left side of the Plate, lifting up his hands in the attitude of prayer with the Clergyman, was once a character of considerable note at the West End of the Town, and from his vivacity, then designated “Lively Jem!” He soon ran through a fine fortune; and, to keep up his extravagances, he plunged into those destructive habits which ultimately brought him into this ignominious situation. Lively Jem, like most others, saw his error too late to repair it. He had not strength of mind sufficient to bear with the reverses of fortune; to fall from splendour to poverty was too much for his feelings; and, to avoid the jests and sneers of his once dashing acquaintance, under the appellation of “poor fellow!” and being excluded from their company, he thus violently terminated his thoughtless career. Jem had been at college with the Oxonian, and as his last request, lie had sent a message to Logic to attend upon him on this mournful occasion, in order to be the bearer of some important circumstances respecting himself to a female, to whom he had been very much attached, and who had also never been absent from him except this fatal morning. Logic was too much of a man to neglect another in the hour of misfortune; and it was to fulfil the request of a dying unfortunate acquaintance, that he came, accompanied by Corinthian Tom and Jerry, to the condemned Yard of Newgate.

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1770: King David Hartley, Yorkshire coiner

1 comment April 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1770, the King of Yorkshire counterfeiters hanged (along with one of his subjects) at York’s Tyburn gallows.

Hartley was the chief of a band of currency manipulators who achieved surprising success and longevity operating from the haunting moors of England’s north.* Known (in order of least to greatest geographical specificity) as the Yokrshire, or West Riding, or Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was a straightforward shaving precious metal from coins but found its edge — so to speak — in their lair’s remoteness from the capital.


Illustration of the coining tools for Portuguese money seized from King David’s band, from The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783. (Portuguese coins, a Cragg Vale specialty, were in active and legal circulation in England at this time, along with other continental coinage.)

According to this public domain volume about the criminals, the first recognition of their activities by law enforcement occurred in 1767, when a coin-clipper named Greenwood “confessed who learnt him the art of clipping in your neighbourhood” — which makes it sound like those artists were already both numerous and practiced. The next year, a man named Joseph Stell hanged for the crime, but the Leeds Intelligencer editorialized in 1769 against “the number of Sweaters and Filers of Gold coin [who] still continue to infest the Western part of this County with impunity” because “if they are suffered to go on a few years in this public and daring manner, it is supposed the current gold coin of the nation in general will be reduced a fifth part.” (A parliamentary inquiry in 1773 found that the overall weight of the country’s coinage came up a full 9% short of its face value: certainly not entirely the work of Cragg Vale, but an alarming state of affairs.)

The business had an undeniable appeal despite the occupational hazard of the gallows. With England awash in the whole world’s specie as the dominant mercantile power, the West Riding became a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs. It’s thought their number might have ranged into the hundreds.

Gold Coin, which has heretofore been so scarce among us as to command a large Premium against Bills of Exchange, flows in upon us with great Rapidity from all parts of the Island; and by the Hocus Pocus Touch of a Number of experimental Philosophers and Chymists (not by an addition to its weight, but by an ingenious Multiplication of its Numbers) is so greatly increased, that all Payments in Paper will soon be at an end … [they] are in a fair Way of drawing Half the Gold in the two Kingdoms into this happy Country … If you wish to be rich, and can sacrifice a few nonsensical Scruples to that Deity, make haste hither, and you may soon be instructed in these Mysteries, which, (with great Ease and Pleasure) will enable you to convert a thousand of your old-fashioned Guineas into Twelve Hundred, and, with a moderate Industry, to repeat the Process every Week.

-Letter from Halifax, July 14, 1769

This letter reflects an alarming situation: not merely the extent of the operation but the degree to which it had become normalized, winked-at, and even integrated into Yorkshire’s economic circuits. “It had become a common practice of the moneyed people — the merchant and manufacturers of the Parish of Halifax — and of those by which that Parish was surrounded, comprising a large portion of the West Riding of the County of York, to carry on a somewhat lucrative business with the Coiners,” one observer wrote. “The central body, if such it may be called, with, for a time, ‘King David’ at its head, was constituted into a kind of Banking Company, with whom certain capitalists deposited large amounts in the shape of guineas.” After all, this bank could offer steady guarantees of investment return.

But bubbles are blown for the bursting, and however many Yorkshiremen had been looking the other way while chymists multiplied guineas, it was about this time that officers of the law started putting the screws to the Yorkshire coiners. (Needless to say, the illicit bank’s merchant customers weren’t handled quite the same way.)

Confrontation came into the open with the 1769 arrests of our man David Hartley (nicknamed “King” for self-evident reasons) and at least a half-dozen others. York Castle’s bowels began to fill up with coiners and collaborators, courtesy of a crown excise officer named William Dighton (or Deighton). Dighton bgan rolling up the gang in a very modern way: starting with bribes to obtain informants and then using their information to smash through the cells.

But so vaunting were the Yorkshire coiners that David Hartley’s brother Isaac put up a £100 reward for the murder of William Dighton — and two guys duly ambushed him in a dark lane in Halifax in November 1769 and shot Dighton dead. This gambit by Isaac was much more loyal than it was wise, for the effrontery to murder an agent of the state invited a ferocious counterattack. (It also didn’t help David Hartley in the least: there was no plan to break him out, only vindictiveness against his persecutor.) the Marquess of Rockingham — the once (1765-66) and future (1782) Prime Minister — was dispatched to the scene to avenge the murdered Dighton, and had 30 coiners in custody by Christmas.

The coiners were done shooting back by this point, and the remaining tales form a tissue of outlaw desperation — flight from manhunts, maneuvering to mitigate death sentences, informing on one another. (Its particulars, and the evidence marshaled against various coiners, can be read in detail at the public domain history already cited.) David Hartley was brought up on capital charges at the next assizes;** his former comrades, including the assassins of Dighton, were hunted to ground. Soon, such counterfeiters as might still be found were reduced to their customary posture, in hidey-holes leaching a few dank groats from the neglected plumbing under the economy, rather than as retail concerns with banking ledgers and armed toughs.

But they left countless others besides — passive co-conspirators, whose wealth their shaving and filing had enlarged and who like King Charles‘s regicides could never fully be brought to book. And they’re not done to this very day: a coiners’ museum is reportedly in the works to capture a few tourist dollars, too.

* Wuthering Heights takes place in Yorkshire, and the Cragg Vale outside of Halifax is within a tormented moonlight ramble of the real locations that inspired its settings.

** Death sentences came down liberally at the assizes, but were (almost) as liberally reprieved — including, for the instance at hand, all of the following: “Thomas Harrison and Benjamin Smith, for Burglary; Benjamin Parkinson, for returning from Transportation; Richard Whitfield, for stealing Linen Cloth from a Bleaching Field; William Dalby, and Robert Moor, alias William Moor, for Horse-stealing; William Owen, George Carr, and John Tunningly, for Cow-stealing; and Robert Allerton, for Sheep-stealing.” (London Public Advertiser, April 13, 1770.)

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1685: John Nevison, speed demon

Add comment May 4th, 2015 Headsman

It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.

The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”

Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.

Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.

To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:

it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.

The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.


(cc) image by Carl Spencer.

* May 4, 1685 is one of several execution dates suggested for Nevison; all appear to lack recourse to any definitive primary document. The Ballads and Songs of Yorkshire, Transcribed from Private Manuscripts, Rare Broadsides, and Scarce Publications is our source here; it attributes its dating to Macaulay, although I have not found it in the latter’s History of England. Other possibilities include May 8, or March 15, in either 1684 or 1685.

** This site suggests that Nicks might also be the same as, or conflated with, yet another highwayman, Captain Richard Dudley.

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1469: Humphrey and Charles Neville, Lancastrians

Add comment September 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1469, Lancastrian nobleman Sir Humphrey Neville and his brother Charles were beheaded at York under the eyes of King Edward IV.

These Nevilles — cousins to the Bastard of Faulconbridge, who we have met previously in these pages — lost their heads in the Lancastrian cause during England’s War(s) of the Roses over royal legitimacy.

For the Nevilles, as indeed for the House of Lancaster in general, everything had gone pear-shaped with the 1461 deposition of the feebleminded Lancastrian ruler Henry VI. That seated on Albion’s throne the Yorkist contender Edward IV; the imprisoned Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou — who had already been the effective sovereign in view of Henry’s mental incapacitation — retreated to Scotland. Humphrey Neville was among the irreconcilable Lancastrians who went with her; he would be captured raiding into England later that same year of 1461.

The House of Neville being one of the greatest in northern England (and having under its roof adherents to both white rose and red), Neville had his life secured by royal pardon and even received a knighthood from the usurping king — just the messy expediency of court politics.

The problem was that Neville just wouldn’t stay bought. 1464 finds him back in the field on the wrong team when the Lancastrians were routed at the Battle of Hexham; it is said that he hied himself thereafter to a cave on the banks of the Derwent and survived an outlaw, for five long years.

In 1469 Neville reappeared on the scene along with the shattered Lancastrian cause when the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick (yet another Neville) turned against King Edward and took him into custody — with the invaluable assistance of various northern disturbances in favor of the Lancastrian cause, a ruckus that Humphrey Neville probably helped to raise.

Warwick, however, found his own position as jailer of the king untenable. Neither could he himself quell the Lancastrian ultras who intended a proper restoration and not merely leveraging the royal prisoner — so to Warwick’s chagrin, he was forced to release King Edward in order to raise the army needed to move against the Lancastrian rebels who were supposed to be his allies.

Neville’s rising, and then Neville himself, were dispatched with ease — but the cost of doing so was the imminent failure of the entire Lancastrian movement.

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1644: Goodwife Cornish

3 comments December 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Sometime in December 1644 in Maine, one Goodwife Cornish was executed for the murder of her husband, Richard Cornish. Her first name has been lost to history.

The couple had married in the town of Weymouth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. It was a match made in hell.

According to Daniel Allen Hearn, writing of this case in his book Legal Executions in New England, 1623-1960, Richard Cornish was “a tireless worker” but his wife as “a woman of loose habits.”

The couple moved north to the settlement York in modern-day Maine in 1646, and “Goodwife Cornish wasted no time in reestablishing her notoriety.”

In 1644, Goodman Cornish’s body was found floating in the York River. He’d been killed in an unusual way: impaled on a stake, then placed in his canoe, which was weighted with stones. As Hearn records:

A cry of murder was raised. The sensational news swept the town and surrounding countryside. Had hostile Indians killed Richard Cornish? Probably not. Although the man’s skull had been crushed as if by a war club no one could imagine an Indian being so wasteful as to purposefully sink a good canoe. Such a craft would have been desirable plunder to an Indian. Moreover, what Indian, it was asked, would squander precious time by weighting down a canoe when he could be making good his escape? For these reasons it was determined that the murder of Richard Cornish was the work of some crafty white person. Suspicion fell upon the wife of the decedent. She had openly despised her husband. She was also rumored to have committed adultery.

Goodwife Cornish, when questioned, denied having murdered her husband.

But she admitted to multiple extramarital affairs and named her latest boyfriend as Edward Johnson. The authorities subjected both of them to “trial by touch,” acting on the old superstition that a murdered person’s corpse would bleed if the killer touched it.

When Goodwife Cornish and Goodman Johnson were brought before Richard Cornish’s body and made to touch it, blood supposedly oozed from his wounds. The ensuing trial, Hearn says, was “a farce.”

Much was made of Goodwife Cornish’s infidelity, but the only actual “evidence” against either her or Johnson was the fact that they’d both flunked the touch test. “It was reputation more than anything else,” Hearn notes, “that counted against Goodwife Cornish.”

Johnson was ultimately acquitted, but Goodwife Cornish was convicted of murder and condemned to die. Having maintained her innocence to the end, she was hanged in York.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Maine,Massachusetts,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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