1839: William John Marchant

On this date in 1839, a spooked 18-year-old servant was hanged at Newgate Prison for murdering fellow-servant Elizabeth Paynton.

A good Chelsea lad with no rap sheet, Marchant slashed Paynton’s throat with a razor when they were left alone, fled, but was so pursued by guilt that he gave himself up and pleaded guilty. Awaiting death, he lamely told his distraught parents

the upper house-maid and the cook went out, leaving [Marchant] with the deceased in the house by themselves. The cook, as she was leaving the house, dared him to get possession of a riband or pair of garters which the deceased had displayed before the servants in the kitchen in jest, and threatened to inflict some ludicrous punishment upon him if he did not … [Marchant] improperly endeavoured to obtain possession of the garters, but she resisted him, and at length slapped his face, called him some ill names, and said she would get him out of his situation for his rudeness. He then ran to fetch a razor to cut the garters and get them into his own possession, and he then had not the least intention of killing her or perpetrating any other offense … but when he did return with the razor in his hand he was seized, as he says, with a sudden and unaccountable impulse, which he could not define, and in a paroxysm of insanity in a moment, and without premeditation, he cut her throat.

(In a later telling, he dropped the garter cover story and copped to a more distinctly identifiable attempted rape, with the murder precipitated by its object’s threat to have him sacked.)

As the London Times remarked on the hanging,

It is difficult, perhaps, to hold him out as an example to other erring youth; for, as he neither appears to have been a drunkard, nor given up to licentious courses, his crime is of so extraordinary a character, that it is hardly possible any other, by following the same course, should terminate his career by the same shameful death … there [may] be no occasion to read a lesson to those who in ordinary cases might be seduced to commit a similar offence.

The dearth of instructional opportunity (and the fact that “the crowd was not great”) did not obstruct London’s enterprising gallows-foot entrepreneurs from cranking out multiple broadsides,* complete with cookie-cutter didactic poem. This sort of thing was standard fare for the day’s forgettable petty villains, not merely its crimes of the decade.

All ye who pity my sad fate,
With sorrow most sincere,
Unto the truth which I will state,
I pray you lend an ear.
Condemned in scorn and shame to die
My doom is most severe,
‘Tis but a few short days since I
Just reached my eighteenth year.

My face is all beset with woe,
My cheeks are worn with care,
My eyes are parch’d and sunk with Grief,
That once so sparkling were.
Strange horrors chill my every vein,
A voice most wild and true,
Whispers to this distracted brain,
Thy hand Elizabeth slew.

At this my very heart doth bleed
With grief, remorse, and guilt
To think upopn the ruthless deed,
The blood which I have spilt;
For never since that hour have I
One moment’s comfort knew,
And poor Elizabeth’s murdered corpse
Is ever to my view.

Behold my days are like a flower,
That blooms at break of day,
Cut down and withered in an hour,
And vanished away.
Lament, lament, to see me die
All ye who do me view,
A poor, heartbroken, wretched lad,
Must bid this world adieu.

Vain, are my lamentations, vain
These unavailing sighs,
Girm [sic] death is hastening apace,
I must prepare to die.
Heaven grant none may hereafter be
Like luckless me undone,
But always strive with humble mind,
The tempters snare to shun.

* From Harvard University’s collection.

Update: The Times Archive Blog flags another interesting bit of this story: the newspaper’s hectoring the doomed footman’s chaplain for excessive “enthusiasm.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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