On this date in 1791, a man named William Jones hanged in Newark, N.J.
Jones cut an apologetic figure at his public execution, and a confession he signed off in the hours before was widely reprinted in New England newspapers. (This transcription is from the Boston Independent Chronicle of May 26, 1791.)
Knowing that without repentance there can be no salvation, and without a sincere confession of our public transgressions, there can be no true repentance, therefore I would give glory to God, exonerate and ease my own wretched mind; and as far as possible, afford that satisfaction to the public, by confessing my crimes, that others may take warning by my awful but just end, and be preserved from such horrid iniquities. This is the only reparation I can make to society, for the evil I have done, for which I am righteously, in the midst of my days, cut off from among men.
I confess I have been exceedingly wicked from my youth. I have been habitually addicted to Sabbath breaking, swearing, keeping evil company, gaming, drinking to excess; and when in liquor, passionate and quarrelsome, and have indulged myself to a high degree in other base and horrid abominations.
But the crime for which I am now to die, I would, with the greatest exactness relate. — I solemnly declare, I never intended to kill Mr. Shotwell, nor had I, at any time, as far as I know, murderous intentions in my heart against him, yet, I was the unfortunate man, that, to gratify my wicked passions, was the occasion of his death. I had long had a spite against Shotwell, because I looked upon it, that he & another man had injured me much, and were the cause of my being obliged to settle a civil prosecution, commenced against me, greatly to my wrong. Therefore I had often said, I would whip, beat or flog Shotwell, but as I never had a thought in my heart to murder him; as a dying man, I never said, I would kill him.
On the evening of Friday the 1st day of April, about or a little after sun down, I saw Samuel Shotwell pass my mother’s house driving cattle or a pair of oxen. In sometime, afterwards, I arose, went out into the road, and followed after him. I met Letts and stopped and talked with him for some minutes perhaps six or eight; then we parted and I followed after Shotwell. I crossed the fence in order to cut off a crook in the road and re-crossed the fence into the road still behind him. About three quarters of a mile from where I had seen Letts, I overtook Shotwell, and, without speaking a word to him, or he to me, I knocked him down with my fist, and there kicked him in the face and head, having on a pair of strong heavy shoes. I then passed the fence into the field opposite to where Shotwell lay. In a short time I saw him rise and go on the road, and I went along in the field. I had thoughts of going to a certain house, at no great distance before us, but before I came to the house, I altered my purpose, and so passed the fence into the road before Shotwell and going back along the way, I presently met him. I knocked him down again with my first, and again kicked him, and left him, and went on the road home. After sitting by the fire a little while, I went to bed, but was very uneasy lest I had beat Shotwell too much.
With regard to the club, of which much was said in the course of my trial, I never had it in my hand, nor did I ever see it, till the next day at the Coroner’s inquest. It was not the weapon I made use of nor had I any weapon whatsoever; but by knocking down Shotwell and kicking him in the manner related, I was the unhappy cause of his death.
I leave this testimony and confession, that my awful conduct may be a warning to others, that they by my dreadful fate, may be admonished to refrain from evil company, and from allowing themselves in drunkenness, wrath, malice or intemperate passions. My wickedness has brought me to this just and awful doom. May all others hear and fear!
A sad end for Messrs. Jones and Shotwell both; readers of the 21st century as well as the 18th ought to hear and fear.
But to the end of this awful but uncomplicated tragedy, we have this curious broadsheet published later in 1791.
What to make of this artifact?
One notices at first blush that as the document was printed in broadsheet form, it was presumably intended for the enrichment of its publisher … and we might suppose treacherous albeit not unpassable footing on the route from anyone actually party to such an occult missive in real life to a hustler harvesting gawkers’ pennies on the incredible secret. Indeed, it would be a profoundly ill turn for Jones or his correspondent, for no better reason than a gloat, to expose the physician of his deliverance to the sanctions that might attend unmasking. If this pamphlet’s remarkable claims were recapitulated in any other media at the time, I have not been able to locate it.
Even presuming that we have a sensational forgery, our bulletin does have something to say to us yet, and not only about the evergreen human fascination with surviving an execution.
This is a document from the Enlightenment, an interval where the vaunting progress of human ingenuity designed even to steal a march from the reaper himself by reviving the drowned or reanimating the dead.
Hangings were survived sometimes — not commonly, but often enough that the phenomenon was familiar and occasionally the enterprising condemned even schemed to accomplish it intentionally. Such a scenario necessarily inspired artists, whose fabulisms would only have reflected the fancies of their audiences. The scaffold was already being given over routinely as the portal to spiritual escape for the penitent knave crushed by his sin … why not the escapism of the flesh, too?
Maybe our broadsheet publishers took inspiration from the fantastic story a couple of years prior of a different man living through his hanging in Massachusetts. Though that earlier tale was perhaps more overtly crafted for moral instruction, the particulars of the harrowing procedure are much the same: the assistance of an obligingly altruistic doctor, the agonizing pain of resuscitation, and the convenient vanishing into unverifiable distant anonymity. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne would allude via a minor character in The Blithesdale Romance to the legend that an English banker executed in the 1820s had duped the hangman — and not unlike our William Johnson, Hawthorne judged that living phantom and his stolen years “a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, … [who] seemed to leave no vacancy.”
On this day..
- 1506: James Tyrrell, Princes in the Tower murderer? - 2020
- 1780: Dennis Carragan, John Hill, and Marmaduke Grant, robbers - 2019
- 1916: Not Constance Markievicz, "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me" - 2018
- 1801: Franz Troglauer - 2017
- 1955: Johnson William Caldwell - 2015
- 1887: Theodore Baker, who knew how it feels to be hanged - 2014
- 1958: Vivian Teed, a first and a last - 2013
- 1970: Ibrahim Husain Muhammad - 2012
- 1972: Deniz Gezmis, Yusuf Aslan, and Huseyin Inan, Turkish revolutionaries - 2011
- 1904: Zenon Champoux, French degenerate - 2010
- 1777: Antoine-Francois Derues, scam artist - 2009
- 1916: Syrian and Lebanese nationalists, who christen "Martyr's Day" - 2008