1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain 1938: Branislaw Tarashkyevich, Belarusian linguist

1828: James “Little Jim” Guild

November 28th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.

His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.

On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.

Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.

So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.

Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.

So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.

He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.

Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.

“The trial became more of a debate over whether a 12-year-old killer should be punished like an adult,” Daniel Hearn writes in Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963. “The presiding judge placed great emphasis on that issue, especially during his instructions to the jury.”

It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.

The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:

Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”

Jim Guild’s manner was of “stoic indifference” when he was hanged before a large crowd fourteen months after his crime, the last execution in Hunterdon County history. He was thirteen years old when he died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

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One thought on “1828: James “Little Jim” Guild”

  1. Codi Preston D. says:

    I am embarrassed to be part of the human race some days. This is one of the reasons I am. I am already against the death penalty for anyone, but executing a 12 year old little boy is just totally wrong in the very worst possible way. That is just crazy. Thank God this isn’t 1828 anymore. The kid was a little boy, more or less. Even the sheriff that supervised the hanging called him a little boy. Just reading about this makes me sick. In England, back in the Middle Ages, there were children as young as 7 years old who were hanged. One little girl that was 7 was hanged for stealing something relatively minor. Really sick. I’m slightly surprised that 4 year olds or 3 year olds have never been executed. All in the name of the state wanting to demand their “pound of flesh”. Ugh. Does a 7 year old even know that stealing is wrong? When I was 5 years old, I “stole” some Life Savers candy from a supermarket. I didn’t know it was wrong to take – I thought it was something that you could get for free!! I think the cashier probably saw me taking that candy too, but probably just didn’t even bother. My mom, in the car, was wondering where I got the candy from!! (haha). But, seriously, does a 7 year old even know what he or she is doing?? I would have to think that God would welcome a little child that was executed for some extremely minor infraction like stealing something that was a few dollars worth, to Heaven with open arms, and condemn the people who executed him or her. Of course, “Little Jim Guild” was 12 years old, but a 12 year old is still a little boy, although his crime was much more serious than simple thievery, but even if he did murder Mrs. Beakes, the death penalty seemed to me to be way out of proportion. Does a 7 year old – or even a 12 year old – understand the way a court works, can the child provide adequate defense of himself in court or assist in his defense, and does he or she even understand the legal words and all that. There are plenty of adults who are perfectly normal that have a hard time even understanding all this legal stuff in court. I am 43 years old and I have higher functioning Classic Autism, and I can hardly understand some of this court language. I actually removed myself from serving as a juror on a trial case (I think it was some burglary) because I didn’t feel with my Autism that I would be a very good jury member. Of course, I’m emotionally and socially like a 4 1/2 to 5 year old (although I have a BA degree in Geography), and my concentration span is so poor that I can’t even concentrate past 20-25 minutes, nor can I drive a car over 25 minutes (I have a driver’s license but hardly drive because of this, and I have been dependent on my parents for a lot). It is unfathomable to think that a 7-year old or a 12 year old would even have the concentration span to even sit in a courtroom for hours every day, without getting up. A 7 year old definitely would have a poor concentration span, and most 3 or 4 year old can’t even concentrate past 15-20 minutes. I know, because I am an assistant volunteer / co-host at my library’s Preschooler Storytime for 3-5 year olds, and I have been for 15 consecutive years, every Thursday. And I see the little kids and their concentration span is not very long. I don’t see how even a 12 year old child could adequately assist even a defense lawyer. At the best, this execution of “Little Jim” Guild was a travesty of justice. I just hope we never go back that time period in the early 1800s. Childhood itself is a relatively new idea – the first kindergartens were opened in 1856, in Wisconsin. In the Middle Ages, childhood didn’t even exist. Little kids were expected to act like junior adults and were expected to hold down a job to help the family – everyone pitched in – even the toddlers and preschoolers. In the 1770s in Colonial Williamsburg and in places like Boston, 10 year old children did jobs that adults did too. Childhood is a relatively new concept. Children were treated like adults and expected to behave like them in Colonial America. But then they also had adult rights, to some extent. Including entering into contracts and (oh God) being able to consent to having sex. The legal age of consent was 10 in Colonial America, as it was also in England. It was 8 years old in Delaware until 1920!! I didn’t make this up, look into Wikipedia or into books. Do we want to go back to that period where children were junior adults? Heck no. Childhood has only been around for 200 years, and I do not want the pendulum to swing back in the opposite direction – it would not take very much to get rid of childhood entirely – it’s such a new concept. Thank you for writing about this. – Take care – Codi Preston D.

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