1741: Cook, Robin, Caesar and Cuffee

Add comment June 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1741, four black men were burned in New York City.

This is the third execution date in that year’s great suppression of a purported slave conspiracy, and it is here that its wantonly inquisitorial character clearly comes to the fore. Accusations under the gallows (or in this case, the pyres) topple like domino-tiles into fresh arrests and new accusations, until from a couple of luckless thieves there are 30-plus souls in the grave.

Eleven days prior, when two slaves named Cuffee and Quack had burned at the stake for this sensational plot, a sham offer of clemency had been extended them with the very fagots beneath their feet. Under this extortion the men had owned the plot, a confession the court privileged as the truth of dying men (for they were burnt anyway, despite their compliance), they duly named as co-conspirators several of those we find in the next tranch of slaves tried before the colony’s highest court.

(We must do Cuffee and Quack the justice of noting that by the time they burned, all those who were to be tried next were already in jail with them, arrested upon the information of another fellow-slave informing to save his own skin. Perhaps the men at the stake supposed their fellows already burnt flesh, and their own accusations strictly ornamental.)

By this point in events, the court was convinced past arguing that a white barkeep named Hughson (whose own Executed Today entry is fast approaching) had played host to large meetings of New York’s Negros, where they drank together and leered at the white servant and toasted one another’s plans to destroy the city. When slaves were wrung for information about the “plot” it was largely to name those who had participated in these supposed meetings. But since a master conspiracy against white New York was now presumed — its alleged leaders had been the first to die — little was required to damn a man but to place him at one of these slaves’ sabbaths. Trials could now become quite perfunctory on any one person’s actual role or misdeeds: just tie him to the satanic cabal.

Even the crown’s own opening statement to the court on June 8 basically promised to mail it in.

It will, I doubt not, appear to you, upon hearing our Witnesses for the King on this Trial, that these six Negroes are some of the Conspirators who combined with those principal Incendiaries, Hughson and his Family, to set on fire the King’s House, and this whole Town, and to kill and murder the Inhabitants.

But as I have already, upon the Trial of the Negro Quack, for burning the King’s House, and of another Negro called Cuffee, for burning Mr. Philipse’s Storehouse, and likewise on the last Trial of Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, and Kerry, endeavoured to set forth their Heinousness of so horrible and detestable a Conspiracy; and the Dangers this City and Province may still be exposed to, until Examples are made of all such as have been concerned in this most wicked Plot; I think I have no Need upon this Trial, to say any Thing further on either of these Heads; not doubting but when you have heard the Crimes which these Criminals stand charged with, proved against them, you will find them Guilty.

The six in question were appended to the horrible and detestable Conspiracy as bullet points in depositions full of denunciations: namely, by the white servant Mary Burton, who was the Abigail Williams character of this particular witch hunt; by Cuffee’s and Quack’s tricked confession at the stake; and by three other slaves — Sandy, Sarah,* and Fortune — who had all been arrested themselves and gave their evidence under the pall of their own probable execution for any failure in cooperation.**

The court would surely reply here that such a society can rarely be penetrated but by dirty hands and compromised witnesses.** Seen in such a light, the roles imputed to these six would have been terrifying.

  • Jack was a “captain” in the cell and resolved “his Knife was so sharp, that if it came a-cross a white Man’s Head, it would cut it off” (according to Sandy); he with Cook “used to be at the Meetings at Hughson’s, when they were talking of firing the Town and murdering the People” (Mary Burton)
  • Cuffee and Caesar “fired Van Zant’s Storehouse” (according to the dying confessions of both Quack and the previous Cuffee) with Caesar declaring for good measure that “he would kill the white Men, and drink their Blood to their good Healths: This about a Fortnight or Three Weeks before the Fort burnt.” (Sandy)
  • Robin “had a Knife there, and sharpened it; and consented to help kill the white Men, and take their Wives.” (Sandy)
  • Jamaica “(being a Fidler) said, he would dance over [white New Yorkers] while they were roasting in the Flames; and said, he had been Slave long enough.” (Mary Burton)

There is at times a suspicious confluence of language — and a repeated fixation on black men seizing white women — that suggest the interrogator’s influence. Nevertheless, depositions overlapping on a number of key points have persuaded not only the slaves’ jurors but some of their latter-day interlocutors that they truly were party to a most audacious design. Every one of them was condemned to death. Jamaica, the fiddler, received the liberality of a three-day wait; the other five were all to burn the very next afternoon — June 9, 1741.

Their actual execution is a one-sentence afterthought in a record already by the morrow speeding along to the next proceedings: “This Day also, The Negroes Cook, Robin (Chamber’s) Caesar (Peck’s) Cuffee (Gomez’s) were executed according to Sentence.” The reader will notice that where five were doomed, only four have died. The fifth, Jack — that fell captain whetting his sharp blade for white throats — was busy that morning saving his own neck by supplying evidence for the crown, straight from the center of the plot. So Jack instead remained in the courtroom, detailing for his prosecutors (soon to be his pardoners) a fresh roster of prey, even as his comrades were wrenched from the courthouse’s basement jail and set alight in downtown Manhattan.

* Our very partial compiler Daniel Horsmanden admits that this witness “was one of the oddest Animals amongst the black Confederates, and gave the most Trouble in her Examinations; a Creature of an outragious Spirit: When she was first interrogated upon this Examination about the Conspiracy, she absolutely denied she knew any Thing of the Matter … her Conduct was such upon the Whole, that what she said, if not confirmed by others, or concurring Circumstances, could not deserve entire Credit.”

** In fact, the court did make this argument (“if Pagan Negroes could not be received as Witnesses against each other … [then] the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity”), for it was also defending itself as early as July of 1741 against contemporary whites who doubted that any actual terrorist conspiracy existed among the slaves. The anonymous New England critic whose letter surviving to us compares New York in 1741 to Salem in 1692 noticed “that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appears to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtained by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to die an easier death.” This was a soul ahead of its time.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,USA

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1743: John Breads, Rye killer

Add comment June 8th, 2016 Golde Singer

On this day in 1743, John Breads met his fate on the gallows in the small Sussex town of Rye, on the south coast of England. The spectacle of his hanging was compounded by the subsequent use of the gibbet, a cage in which Breads’s body was left exposed to the elements in Gibbets Marsh for more than 20 years.

On the face of it, this was just another hanging in the dustbin of history, but author Paul Kleber Monod uses it as the focal point of a book, The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town (review | another), in which he wraps Rye, the murder and the execution into the social structures of England (especially small-town England) of the 18th century.

Although the murder itself is a small part of Monod’s book, he nonetheless outlines two aspects of the Breads story which make it worth a look by readers of Executed Today:

  1. the issue of fairness in the handling of the trial and execution; and
  2. the killer’s attempt to assert “mental distraction”

The facts of the murder itself seem fairly straightforward, although a little quirky, since the whole affair was apparently a case of mistaken identity: James Lamb, the then-mayor of Rye, was invited to dinner on March 16, 1743, to celebrate the appointment of his son John to the customs service. Lamb was feeling ill that day and asked his brother-in- law, Allen Grebell, to attend the dinner in his place. As Grebell was returning home after the event, he was attacked and stabbed in the churchyard by John Breads; although Grebell was able to make it back to his home, he died that night from his wounds.

When Breads was arrested for the murder, he claimed he had intended to kill Lamb, not Grebell. Monod points out that, since Lamb was related (albeit by marriage) to the victim, normal procedure would have been to move any hearing or trial to another jurisdiction, or at least allow an independent jurist to preside over the case. Breads’s assertion that Lamb was the intended victim should have given the Mayor even more reason not to be involved.

Instead, he insisted on keeping the trial in Rye and compounded the irregularity by acting as both prosecutor for the grand jury and as judge for the trial, thus ignoring judicial standards relating to conflict of interest. Additionally, one description of the trial claims that Lamb testified during the trial itself; if this is true, Monod says, such testimony was a breach of common law, which dictated that judges could not testify in cases over which they were presiding.

Monod introduces a commentary by Rye resident and lawyer Henry Dodson, who questioned whether Breads had received a fair trial in light of Lamb’s actions:

How fair a Tryal, the Prisoner had, I leave the Reader, to determine after he is informed, the above Mr. Lamb, was Mayor, Coroner, Party Prosecuting, Judge, Witness and Sheriff, in Presenting, Trying and Executing the said John Breads.

I suppose, he was Mayor, Coroner, and Sheriff, as essentiall, to the office of Mayoralty; Party and prosecutor, as Brother in Law to the Unfortunate good Gentleman, that was Killed; and Judge, and Witness out of Zeal, in getting the Prisoner proved Sane …

Dodson seemed to feel that Lambs involvement in the case was just a little too personal, and the fact that Breads was gibbeted after his execution might lend some credence to that idea. Gibbeting, Monod points out, was not usually a punishment imposed by a judge, but rather by royal order, and it was generally reserved for the most serious of killers.

But Monod puts the trial into a larger social context, suggesting that

the trial of John Breads bears a message about how the law operated in the 18th century [and] stands as an example of how authority might assert itself aggressively and unrestrainedly. The last word belonged to the judge … a kind of paternalism based on the social (and hence moral) inequality between defendant and judge. It was the opinion of the magistrate that counted.

[This] system reflected a social and political structure in which authority had been concentrated in a few hands, usually by inheritance … Breads had little chance of escaping the most extreme form of retribution.

The second point of interest in the Breads trial was that it stood at the cusp of a new understanding of insanity in the commission of crimes.

This is a mere replica of the Breads gibbet on display at the Rye Museum, but the town council still has possession of the original, skull and all. It’s reported to be a highly sought gawk, but it can only be seen by special arrangement.

Although Breads originally claimed his plan was to kill the mayor, he changed his tune at the trial, where he was reported as having said that “if he had committed the Fact, he knew nothing of it, for it was done when he was in Distraction … In short, he affected Madness …” (Kentish Post, June 1-4, 1743)

Or, in today’s parlance that would fitfully develop, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Insanity had been a legitimate defense for years, but the definition of insanity was very much in flux at this time. Doctors suggested that madness was due to a mental defect rather than possession by an evil spirit and lawyers were pushing the idea that homicide required “malice aforethought,” while many average citizens still believed that those who were mad were in the grip of the devil.

Monod proposes yet another possibility by putting the question into a sociological context: “Insanity does not operate randomly,” he writes. “It cannot separate a sufferer from the social context in which he or she exists.”

For Breads, whose upbringing had been closely tied to his church, that context included unsuccessful attempts in the late 1600s by religious purists to wrest control of Rye’s government and economy from the wealthy secular class, and the antagonistic feelings that remained from the abject failure of that effort and the perceived religious persecution that followed it. Breads was no doubt influenced by that antagonism, Monod suggests, and those feelings “may have alienated him from the way the town was governed … [He] wanted to vent his rage on the oligarchs.” As a result, “Even in his madness, Breads was trapped by his own history and that of his native town.”

Whatever the source of Breads’ “distraction,” it did him no good. But it did become one piece of a serious conversation about the issue — a conversation which has continued for centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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1741: Cuffee and Quack, “chained to a stake, and burnt to death”

Add comment May 30th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 marked the first official execution for the alleged New York slave conspiracy of 1741.

Nineteen days before, two slaves named Caesar and Prince had hanged, nominally for theft but believed by the populace (and the court) primary instigators of a staggering plot to put New York to the torch, murder the city’s whites, and reign as kings on the ashes of their masters’ city.

Cuffee was, alongside those already-executed Caesar and Prince, part of a trio of slaves known to hang about together at the house of barkeep and fence John Hughson. Already notorious about town for a gin-robbing incident that had seen all three publicly whipped in 1738, they had again burgled a linen store that February. (That’s the crime for which Caesar and Prince were executed.)

The evidentiary chain linking these commonplace prowlers to a spate of fires whose intent must be the annihilation of the city leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the burning spring of 1741 helped solder them together in part thanks to a white New Yorker spying Cuffee in what he thought was a suspicious position during a fire and raising the alarm. Cuffee fled, back to the home of Adolph Philipse — his owner, and also the uncle of one of the judges who would eventually condemn him — where a crowd of incited freemen chased him down and hauled him to gaol, “borne upon the People’s Shoulders.” His skulking seemed to confirm a widening suspicion, spiced by the mother country’s going war against dusky Spaniards, that the city’s Negroes must surely lurk behind a fortnight’s infernos. From this point on it appears as if New Yorkers — or at least the city’s elites — determined by consensus that they “must necessarily conclude, that [the fires] were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”

Now, this appearance of consensus is an impression nearly three centuries distant, and is heavily shaped by the circumstance that there’s one predominant voice surviving the ravages of years to document for us the official proceedings: Daniel Horsmanden, who both judged and investigated the case and is thus heavily invested in its outcome. His A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction With Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America and Murdering the Inhabitants is Horsmanden’s record of how the plot or “plot” was uncovered; it was assembled in 1742 and presents trial and deposition records curated by Horsmanden with a view to persuading “such as have a Disposition to be convinc’d, and have in Reality doubted, whether any particular Convicts had Justice done them or not” — for by this time such doubts were dogging Horsmanden’s court, having hounded 30-odd people to death on evidence that was already viewed as highly impeachable.

There had been some wanton, wrong-headed Persons amongst us, who took the Liberty to arraign the Justice of the Proceedings, and set up their private Opinions in Superiority to the Court and Grand Jury; tho’ God knows (and all Men of Sense know) they could not be Judges of such Matters; but nevertheless, they declared with no small Assurance (notwithstanding what we saw with our Eyes, and heard with our Ears, and every one might have judg’d of by his Intellects, that had any) That there was no Plot at all!

Whether the entire slave conspiracy to burn New York was a phantom, or whether it did indeed reflect in whatever distorted way a some real mode of resistance, is a factual question that is permanently unanswerable.* But the cases certainly took on a witch hunt quality, and they bore many hallmarks of wrongful conviction that are familiar even today.

Our first two hangings, Caesar and Prince, were doomed by the decision of John Hughson’s teenage serving-girl to turn state’s evidence and denounce them. As Cuffee and Quack would be the first people formally tried for the arson wave, her evidence was buttressed in this case by another common prosecutor’s cheat: the prison snitch.

A (white) petty thief named Arthur Price, who was being held in New York’s dungeon along with the growing ranks of suspected terrorists, helpfully began informing on the people around him. It’s likely he was a longstanding underclass crony of the purported plotters.

At any rate, the civic-minded Price, “having been found by experience to be very adroit at pumping out the Secrets of the Conspirators … was ordered to put Cuffee (Mr. PHILIPSE’s Negro) into the same Cell with him, and to give them a Tankard of Punch now and then, in order to chear up their Spirits, and make them more sociable.” What do you know but the next morning, Price was ready to report that his inebriated cellmate had admitted the conspiracy to him, and had implicated Quack as the man who actually fired the fort.

Quack was promptly arrested. Arthur Price would give evidence against both at their trial, but having made himself an obvious stool pigeon his use as an informant was at an end since nobody would go near him any longer.

More key information against Cuffee and Quack came from two other slaves, whose “Negro evidence” — a distinct class of (significantly derogated) proof in New York courts — would also have been controversial. The crown’s attorney prosecuting the case felt obliged to go out of his way to justify to the jury the unsworn testimony of “Pagan Negroes” on the grounds that without such, “the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity.” But pagan or no, both Sandy (a minor) and Fortune were also men who were suspect in the plot. Perhaps as black slaves their king’s evidence could not be as strong as that of the white servant Mary Burton — but it might still be strong enough to save their lives. Sandy spent a week in the dungeon amid his alleged confederates, after which he was hauled before the grand jury and leaned upon until he cracked.

They told him, if he would speak the Truth, the Governor would pardon him, though he had been concerned in them; and this was the Time for him to save his Life by making a free and ingenuous Confession; or in Words to this Purpose. He answered, That the Time before after that the Negroes told all they knew, then the white People hanged them. The Grand Jury assured him, that it was false; for that the Negroes which confessed the Truth and made a Discovery, were certainly pardoned, and shipped off: [which was the Truth] And upon this Assurance he began to open, and gave the following Evidence.

Quack, Sandy said, had solicited Sandy to help him burn down Fort George — and Cuffee “said, D–m him, that hang him or burn him, he would set fire to the Town.” Fortune was among the numerous other names he named — whose “Design was to kill all the Gentlemen, and take their Wives, and that Quack and Cuffee were particular Persons that talked so.”

Strangely, before they suffered at the stake Cuffee and Quack were suffered to conduct a hopeless defense of their own — “indulged with the same Kind of Trial as is due to Freemen, though they might have been proceeded against in a more summary and less favourable Way,” in the crown’s summing-up. This was more than they were entitled to as slaves, and they used the court’s liberality to summon ten witnesses in an attempt to establish good character and alibi; notably, Quack’s owner John Roosevelt avowed that “Quack was employed most Part of that Morning the Fort was fired, from the Time they got up, in cutting away the Ice out of the Yard; that he was hardly ever out of their Sight all that Morning, but a small Time while they were at Breakfast; and that they could not think he could that Morning have been [from] their House so far as the Fort.” But even from a white property owner, these words were far too little against a consensus that had been shaped seemingly from the belly of the conspiracy — from Mary Burton’s evidence and Arthur Price’s evidence and Sandy’s and Fortune’s evidence: that Quack’s were the hands that set the most damaging fire in the arson campaign, and that Cuffee’s, along with Caesar’s and Prince’s, were the hands that directed him.

Their condemnation was a mere formality, albeit one whose rhetorical opportunities the court did not mean to neglect.

You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet you are all far, very far, from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.

I know not which is the more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy; for as to any view of liberty or government you could propose to yourselves, upon the success of burning the city, robbing, butchering, and destroying the inhabitants; what could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction? And as the wickedness of it, you might well have reflected, you that have sense, that there is a God above, who has always a clear view of all your actions, who sees into the utmost recesses of the heart, and knoweth all your thoughts; shall he not, do ye think, for all this bring you into judgment, at that final and great day of account, the day of judgment, when the most secret treachery will be disclosed, and laid open to the view, and everyone will be rewarded according to their deeds, and their use of that degree of reason which God Almighty has entrusted them with.

Ye that were for destroying us without mercy, ye abject wretches, the outcasts of the nations of the earth, are treated here with tenderness and humanity; and, I wish I could not say, with too great indulgence also; for you have grown wanton with excess of liberty, and your idleness has proved your ruin, having given you the opportunities of forming this villainous and detestable conspiracy; a scheme compounded of the blackest and foulest vices, treachery, blood-thirstiness, and ingratitude. But be not deceived, God Almighty only can and will proportion punishments to men’s offences; ye that have shewn no mercy here, and have been for destroying all about ye, and involving them in one general massacre and ruin, what hopes can ye have of mercy in the other world? For shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Let me in compassion advise ye then; there are but a few moments between ye and eternity; ye ought therefore seriously to lay to heart these things; earnestly and sorrowfully to bewail your monstrous and crying sins, in this your extremity; and if ye would reasonably entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, ye must shew mercy here yourselves, and make what amends ye can before ye leave us, for the mischief you have already done, by preventing any more being done. Do not flatter yourselves, for the same measure which you give us here, will be measured to you again in the other world; ye must confess your whole guilt, as to the offences of which ye stand convicted, and for which ye will presently receive judgment; ye must discover the whole scene of iniquity which has been contrived in this monstrous confederacy, the chief authors and actors, and all and every the parties concerned, aiding and assisting therein, that by your means a full stop may be put to this horrible and devilish undertaking. And these are the only means left ye to shew mercy; and the only rea­sonable ground ye can go upon, to entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, before whose judgment seat ye are so soon to appear.

Ye cannot be so stupid, surely, as to imagine, that when ye leave this world, when your souls put off these bodies of clay, ye shall become like the beasts that perish, that your spirits shall only vanish into the soft air and cease to be. No, your souls are immortal, they will live forever, either to be eternally happy, or eternally miserable in the other world, where you are now going.

If ye sincerely and in earnest repent you of your abominable sins, and implore the divine assistance at this critical juncture, in working out the great and momentous article of the salvation of your souls; upon your making all the amends, and giving all the satisfaction which is in each of your powers, by a full and complete discovery of the conspiracy, and of the several persons concerned in it, as I have observed to ye before, then and only upon these conditions can ye reasonably expect mercy at the hands of God Almighty for your poor, wretched and miserable souls.

Here ye must have justice, for the justice of human laws has at length overtaken ye, and we ought to be very thankful, and esteem it a most merciful and wondrous act of Providence, that your treacheries and villainies have been discovered; that your plot and contrivances, your hidden works of darkness have been brought to light, and stopped in their career; that in the same net which you have hid so privly for others your own feet are taken: that the same mischief which you have contrived for others, and have in part executed, is at length fallen upon your own pates, whereby the sentence which I am now to pronounce will be justified against ye; which is,

That you and each of you be carried from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you and each of you shall be chained to a stake, and burnt to death; and the lord have mercy upon your poor, wretched souls.

That sentence came down on May 29.

It was implemented the very next day, amid a mob scene.

With Quack and Cuffee staked to their pyres, they were harried to admit the plot with the promise of a reprieve from their horrible sentence. Even if mercy would only amount to moderating death by burning into death by hanging, it would be well worth having — and the frightened slaves grasped at the small succor left them.

The spectators at this execution were very numerous; about three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder. The criminals shewed great terror in their countenances, and looked as if they would gladly have discovered all they knew of this accursed scheme, could they have had any encouragement to hope for a reprieve. But as the case was, they might flatter themselves with hopes: they both seemed inclinable to make some confession; the only difficulty between them at last being, who should speak first. Mr. Moore, the deputy secretary, undertook singly to examine them both, endeavoring to persuade them to confess their guilt, and all they knew of the matter, without effect; till at length Mr. Roosevelt [Quack’s owner, who testified for his alibi -ed.] came up to him, and said he would undertake Quack, whilst Mr. Moore examined Cuffee; but before they could proceed to the purpose, each of them was obliged to flatter his respective criminal that his fellow sufferer had begun, which stratagem prevailed: Mr. Roosevelt stuck to Quack altogether, and Mr. Moore took Cuff’s confession, and sometimes also minutes of what each said; and afterwards upon drawing up their confessions in form from their minutes, they therefore intermixed what came from each.

Thus induced by prevaricating confessors amid a mob baying for their blood, both Quack and Cuffee implicated Hughson as the originator of the plot, and themselves as early principals, and named a good many others besides. (Quack also at last claimed responsibility for firing Fort George, as the court had found.)

But the quid for their quo was not the promised abatement of their sufferings. As Sandy had worried to the grand jury in a different context, white men’s reassurances to slave rebels whom they meant to destroy could prove … unreliable.

After the confessions were minuted down (which were taken in the midst of great noise and confusion) Mr. Moore desired the sheriff to delay the execution until the governor be acquainted therewith, and his pleasure known touching their reprieve; which, could it have been effected, it was thought might have been means of producing great discoveries; but from the disposition observed in the spectators, it was much to be apprehended, there would have been great difficulty, if not danger in an attempt to take the criminals back. All this was represented to his honour; and before Mr. Moore could return from him to the place of execution, he met the sheriff upon the common, who declared his opinion, that the carrying the negroes back would be impracticable; and if that was his honour’s order it could not be attempted without a strong guard, which could not be got time enough; and his honour’s directions for the reprieve being conditional and discretionary, for these reasons the execution proceeded.

* For contrasting perspectives, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present this as a real instance of working-class rebellion in The Many-Headed Hydra, while Jill LePore’s New York Burning approaches it as mostly a concoction.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA

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Corpses Strewn: New York’s slave conspiracy of 1741

1 comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.

This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.

By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.

On March 18, Fort George caught fire, burning to the ground with the mansion of the autocratic royal governor before a semi-timely rainstorm aborted a potential Great Fire of London scenario.

Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.

The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.


1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.

There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”


New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741

A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.

But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.

We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.

Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.

As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.

A few books about the slave conspiracy

* Witches were actually passingly entertained as the possible malefactors here, as the day for this superstition was not yet entirely past.

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1741: Caesar and Prince, leaders of a plot to burn New York?

1 comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.

The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Sarah Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.

Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.

As Jill Lepore notes in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, the existence of this mock secret society would be conflated for the prosecutors of the 1741 burnings with a three-year plot to destroy New York.

This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!

They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.

And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.

Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.

This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.

Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,

1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.

2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had heard them (the negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the fly and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.

3. “That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.

4. “That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.

5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.

6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, that when they set fire to the town, they would do it in the night, and as the white people came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.

7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.

8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.

9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”

This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.

By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.

Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.

The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.

I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.

And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.

The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.

MONDAY, MAY 11

Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.

These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.

* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.

** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.

† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.

Part of the set Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.

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1748: William Whurrier, War of Austrian Succession veteran

Add comment March 7th, 2016 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:


WILLIAM WHURRIER
Executed at Tyburn for murder, March 7, 1748, and his body hung in chains on Finchley common. (A Hard Case.)

We cannot so clearly see by the report of this trial, as the jury might have done by the evidence adduced, the malice propense necessary to constitute the conviction of murder. But, though we are by no means disposed to question a verdict of the country, yet we cannot avoid saying, that the case added to the services which the unfortunate man had rendered the king, should have proved a strong recommendation to royal mercy.

This soldier was a native of Morpeth, in Northumberland, and brought up as a husbandman; but having inlisted in General Cope‘s regiment, he served five years and a half in Flanders; when, some horses being wanted for the use of the army, he and another man were sent to England to purchase them.


General Cope is most famous today as the subject of a Scottish folk song commemorating a rout the Jacobites inflicted at the Battle of Prestonpans.

On the 11th of February, 1748, as Whurrier and his companion were walking over Finchley Common towards Barnet, the latter, being wearied, agreed with a post-boy, who went by with a led horse, to permit him to ride to Barnet, leaving Whurrier at an alehouse on the road. Whurrier having drank freely, met with a woman who appeared to be his country-woman, and with her he continued drinking till both of them were intoxicated, when they proceeded together towards Barnet; but they were followed by some sailors, one of whom insulted Whurrier, telling him that he had no business with the woman.

Whurrier suspecting there was a design to injure him, asked the woman if she had any connection with those men. She said she had not: but in the meantime the other Sailors coming up, said they came to rescue the woman; on which Whurrier drew his sword; but returned it into the scabbard without annoying any one.

A soldier riding by at this instant, Whurrier told him that the sailors had ill-treated him, and begged his assistance, on which the soldier getting off his horse, the sailors ran away, and Whurrier pursuing them, overtook the first that had assaulted him, and drawing his sword, cut him in such a manner that he was carried in a hopeless condition to a house in the neighbourhood, where he languished till the Sunday following, and then died.

the skull … was divided, as if a butcher had taken a chopper and divided the skull, so that the brains lay open.

… I judged the wound to be mortal; and upon his head being shaved, there appeared six other wounds upon the head, which went through the skin, but not into the skull; but the bone was bare, and I dressed them all. Then I made an inspection into the arm, and I found as many wounds there, from the wrist to the scapula, as I did upon the head. Upon the back part, what we call the scapula or shoulder bone, there were two wounds more … the bone of the arm was fractured by the incision, as if it had been done by a sword.

… I believe there were fifteen [wounds], and they were all at that distance from one another, that they must all have been made by separate strokes, and from these wounds the man must be in a very weak and languishing condition, and I found him so.

Surgeon’s testimony at Whurrier’s trial

It appeared by the testimony of a surgeon that the deceased had received a cut across the skull, as if done with a butcher’s chopper; so that the brains lay open; besides a variety of other wounds.

Whurrier being taken into custody for the commission of this murder, was brought to trial at the next sessions at the Old Bailey and being capitally convicted on the clearest, evidence, was sentenced to die.

After conviction he said he thought there was a combination between the woman he had met with and the sailors; and a day or two before he suffered, he procured the following paper to be published, which he called, “Whurrier’s Declaration.”

This is to let the world know that I have lived in good credit, and have served his Majesty eight years and two months. In the time of my service, I have stood six campaigns, and always obeyed all lawful commands: I have been in three battles, and at Bergen-op-zoom, during the time it was besieged. The first battle was at Dettingen, June, 1743, when his Majesty headed his army: the second was in the year 1745, April 30, at Fontenoy; the third was at Luckland, by siege; besides several skirmishes, and other great dangers.


The Battle of Fontenoy, by the Flanders painter Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe.

I had rather it had been my fate to have died in the field of battle, where I have seen many thousand wallowing in their blood, than to come to such disgrace: but, alas! I have escaped all these dangers to come to this unhappy fate, to suffer at Tyburn, and afterwards to hang in chains on a gibbet, which last is the nearest concern to me; and I cannot help expressing, that it would be more beneficial to the public to employ blacksmiths to make breast-plates for the soldiers, than irons to inclose their bodies to be exposed to the fowls of the air.

I have been a true subject and faithful servant, as is well known to the officers of the regiment to which I belonged. If I had been a pick-pocket, or a thief, I should have suffered much more deservedly, in my own opinion, than I now do; for what I did was in my own defence: I was upon the king’s duty, and was assaulted by the men in sailors’ habits, who gave me so many hard blows, as well as so much bad language, that I could no longer bear it, and was obliged to draw my sword in my own defence; and being in too great a passion, as well as too much in liquor, I own I struck without mercy; as thinking my life in danger, surrounded by four men, who I thought designed to murder me; who, or what they were the Lord knows; it is plain they had a false pass, as it was proved: and that they had travelled but seven miles in nine days; but I forgive them, as I hope forgiveness: and the Lord have mercy on My soul, and the poor man’s whom I killed.

   W. WHURRIER.


Whurrier was executed at Tyburn in a group comprising six souls all told: the others were Robert Scott and Samuel Chilvers, smugglers; William Stevens and Francis Hill, housebreakers; and John Parkes, forger. Stevens was only 17 years old: “young, and entirely unacquainted with the Nature of the World,” in the words of the Newgate Ordinary who prepared the boy’s soul for its ordeal.

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1744: Skinnar Per Andersson, legislator

Add comment January 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1744, Skinnar Per Andersson was beheaded in Stockholm — a cautionary examplar of the limits of electoral change.

Andersson, (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) a farmer from Dalarna, was his constituency’s most eloquent exponent of grievances against the ruling Hat party.

The latter had proven deeply unresponsive to the complaints of farmers and peasants while also harrowing the countryside for recruits to die in the Hats’ insane war of choice against Russia.

Andersson tore into the war policy at a public meeting in July of 1742, demanding punishment for the politicians who had launched it; he found himself elected to the Riksdag for his trouble.

That’s just fine, but the anger of his neighbors was outrunning Andersson’s personal capacity to act as one legislator in a chamber. A peasant revolt against continued military recruitment, the Dalecarlian Rebellion, broke out among Dalarna farmers in 1743 — and though the enterprise was much against Andersson’s own urging toward moderation, he thought himself duty-bound to adhere to it when commenced.

As is usual with peasant rebellions, it did not last long, and the Hats who had somehow retained control of government despite their self-inflicted catastrophe had Andersson arrested and executed along with other leaders of the rising.

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1746: Charles Radclyffe, twice Jacobite rebel

Add comment December 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1746, Jacobite lord Charles Radclyffe was beheaded at Tower Hill as a rebel.

He was the 5th Earl of Derwentwater — or would have been, had not his older brother James forfeited the title along with his own head for joining the Jacobite rising in 1715.

This antecedent rebellion was no stranger to our man Charles, either. He’d been in the dock with James; in fact, it was under this 30-year-old death sentence that he was beheaded in 1746. We’ve even met him on these very pages, for the 1716 beheading of James — and the clever cross-dressing escape of his fellow-condemned, Lord Nithsdale — have featured in our pages before.

Using the less picturesque ruse of bribery, Charles Radclyffe himself escaped from Newgate in December of 1716, and immediately absconded to the continent to join the Lord Nithsdale at the exile Jacobite court in Rome — where the young pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie was born on the last day of 1720 and grew into manhood, champing for his opportunity to reclaim the family’s lost patrimony.

That opportunity seemed to present itself in the 1740s when Britain went to war against a coalition that included most of Europe’s Catholic powers. France, with her long history of opportunistic Scotch alliance against England, backed a fresh Jacobite rising in 1745 to stir the north and divert the British from the continent. Prince Charlie landed in Scotland and marched into a cheering Edinburgh on September 17, leading Charles Radclyffe, too, to sail for Scotland in November of that year. Now 52 years old, he would be one of the few lords to participate in both the great Jacobite rebellions … but he would not even set eyes on the new military debacles, for Radclyffe was simply intercepted at sea.

A noted lothario, Charles Radclyffe left illegitimate children whose exact numbers can only be guessed; they might possibly include the eventual husband of British feminist Mary Ann Radcliffe, and a girl named Jenny, the protagonist of Anya Seton’s historical novel Devil Water.

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1746: Three Catholic servants

Add comment May 16th, 2015 Headsman

All stories from issues of the Maryland Gazette, datelined Annapolis. (via) Though not explicit in any of these stories, the attack by Catholic servants upon their master while the Jacobite rising was still afoot must have been read by Maryland’s grandees as more menacing than your everyday domestic crime.


Tuesday, April 22, 1746

The following Particulars of the murder of Richard Waters, in Kent Co., on the 5th inst., having been transmitted to us, are here inserted:

About two months ago Hector Grant, a Highland Papist, and James Horney, an Irish one, both Servants to Mr. Waters, communicated to a West Co. convict woman (servant to Mr. Waters, and of the same communion with the other two), and an orphan apprentice girl, their intention to murder their Master; to which the women agreeing, they all swore on a Bible not to make any discovery.

Having been several Times disappointed in their Design to way-lay him on the Road, in order to perpetrate their Villainy, it happened that on Saturday the 5th Instant, Mr. Waters being at a Muster, and having drank too freely; he was conducted home by two of his Neighbours, who had put him to Bed, and left him about an Hour within the Night: When the Woman, having put his two Children to Bed with him, persuaded the Orphan Girl to go over with her to a Neighbour’s.

In the meantime the two Men murder’d the poor Man, overcome with Liquor and Sleep, by giving him a desperate Blow on the Head with an Axe; after which they dragg’d him out of Bed upon the Floor, repeating their Blows, tho’ any one of them would have proved mortal: The Children sleeping sound all the While; it is thought prevented their undergoing the same Fate; tho’ the Highlander proposed setting the House on fire, and burning the Children therein.

The Girls returning, found the Fellows rejoicing in their Villany, who then put the Deceased’s Cloaths on him, and throwing his Body across a Horse carried it to a Branch about half a Mile from the House, and there buried it; They afterwards burnt the bloody Sheets, clean’d away the Blood, and the next Morning gave out, that their Master set out for Annapolis by Day-break. Nobody had any Suspicion of what had been transacted ’til about the Middle of the Week, when one of the Deceased’s Shoes and Buckles were found; and their carousing, buying Rum, and idling about, and the Horse’s being seen at home, gave the Neigbours reason to suspect the Matter; whereupon the Men were apprehended, and a bloody Shirt found, but no further Discovery made ’til Sunday; when the Orphan Girl, after she had at a solemn Examination denied she knew anything of the Fact, privately confess’d that she had been sworn to the Secresy: On being told that her Oath, being extorted by the Fellows, could not be binding, she related all she knew of it.

The same Evening, the Irishman, finding the Girl had made a Discovery, confess’d every Circumstance told; as also where the body was buried, and where he had concealed his Master’s Watch, Ring, Clasps, &c. which were all accordingly found. The two Men and the Woman, were brought in, by the Coroner’s Inquest, guilty of Wilful Murder.

The Highlander received the Sacrament at Mass, the Sunday before this tragic scene was executed; and, notwithstanding his most obstinate denial of knowing anything of the fact, appears to have been the first proposer and principal actor in this tragedy.


Tuesday, May 6, 1746

Friday last was held, at Chester in Kenty County, a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, for trying the Murderers of Richard Waters; when the two Men and the Woman were found guilty of the Indictment, and received Sentence of Death; Grant and Horney are to hang’d and the Woman (Esther Anderson is to be burnt.)


Tuesday, May 20, 1746

On Friday last, Hector Grant, James Horney, and Esther Anderson, were Executed at Chester in Kent County, pursuant to their Sentence, for the Murder of their late Master. The Men were Hang’d, the Woman Burn’d. They died penitent, acknowleging their Crimes, and the Justice of their Punishment.

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1745: Martha Stracey, whore and reprobate-creature

1 comment March 15th, 2015 Headsman

Martha Stracey or Tracey hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1745 for assaulting a man named Will Humphreys and robbing him of one single guinea a few months before.

Stracey, about 18 or 20 years old, was a prostitute and pickpocket — “a perverse, vicious Girl, void of all good Dispositions, and wholly untractable and unadviseable, giving herself up to the vilest Company on Earth, both of Men and Women,” the Newgate Ordinary judged. The Ordinary’s accounts are a reliable feast of purple prose and do not disappoint in discoursing on the young bawd and her fall.

Having no interest in honest work and “renounc[ing] every thing resembling Goodness or Virtue,” she “went idling her Time away on the Streets with her hellish wicked Companions, who induc’d her to commence Whore, upon which she turn’d a meer reprobate-Creature” and “became known to all the Constables, and inferior Officers of Justice in that End of the Town.” Stracey, says the Ordinary, “own’d she was naturally inclined, and not over-persuaded by others, as some of them may or do alledge in Extenuation of their Guilt.”

During the night of Dec. 22-23, Humphreys testified, Stracey and Humphreys met on the Strand. According to Humphreys, she approached him unbidden, and when Humphreys insulted her, two men clobbered him as Stracey skillfully went through his pockets in a few seconds and plucked out the gold coin.

Stracey claimed the affair began when Humphreys “pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.”

No other eyewitnesses could testify to the substance of their rendezvous, but Humphreys’s story about the mysterious male accomplices who after thumping him went on their own way and left Stracey alone with him mid-robbery has the definite whiff of a cover story. The jury — perhaps searching for some grounds to avoid sending the woman to the gallows* — even asked the arresting constable, William Dunn, whether Humphreys’s clothes were really dirty, since he claimed to have been knocked down in the scuffle. (The constable didn’t know.)

But the simple fact was that Stracey did have Humphreys’s gold guinea, whether she achieved by main force or plucked it during a roadside assignation. With the convenient disappearance of her supposed goon squad, Humphreys was now able to seize the hustler on the spot and drag her to the watch. Constable Dunn had someone “search her behind and before (I ask pardon, my Lord)” and finally found the guinea under Martha’s profane tongue.

Before her execution, Stracey did confess that she had stolen the gold piece, under the circumstances that Humphreys’s shady account might lead one to infer:

Martha own’d the Fact she died for, that meeting a Man in the Street in the Evening, about Nine or Ten o’Clock, they speedily came to speak of an Agreement about a certain Affair; and as they were adjusting Matters, Martha thought fit to examine the Gentlemen’s Pockets, and amongst other Things, finding a Guinea, she robb’d him of it, as he Swore against her, and upon this she was convicted of a Street-robbery, one of the greatest Crimes in the Eye of the Law. She did not well remember the Circumstances of this robbery, as being very Drunk, which all of them generally are, when attempting to perpetrate so soul and black Crimes in an audacious manner.

Martha owned her committing of several robberies of this Kind before, she being a constant Street-walker , but did not well remember the Circumstances of the Robbery, she died for, nor the others which were conceal’d, it being impossible to recollect them, for the was always dead Drunk when they were committed. She was very ignorant of Religion, and what Things pertained to the state of her Soul; I endeavoured to instruct her, as the Brevity of Time allow’d, but she was of a mean Capacity and slow of Understanding, and had been so accustomed to do Evil, that she could scarce do any Thing that was good.

* The denomination of the stolen coin made “pious perjury” impossible.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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