On this date in 1770, inveterate burglar William Linsey was hanged in Worcester, Mass.
Linsey never killed anyone but just couldn’t lay off the thieving — as he owned himself in a gallows broadsheet: “Having so often escaped with impunity, for my wretched crimes, I was under no awe or restraint, neither learning God nor regarding man, resolutely bent upon working wickedness.” That didn’t mean he didn’t get caught: he frequently did, and once was pilloried, flogged, and branded all in the same day as punishment for fraud.
The quote is courtesy of a Linsey profile by friend of the blog and occasionalguest poster Anthony Vaver, on his site Early American Crime — which notes that Linsey ultimately fell foul of a sort of colonial three-strikes law escalating penalties for mere property crimes all the way to the gallows in the case of repeat offenders.
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 Yorkshire, 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.
** 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.)
On this date in 1772, the town of New Haven, Connecticut hanged a Mohegan Indian named Moses Paul for a drunken homicide. He’d been kicked out of a tavern as an unruly sot, and vengefully beat to death outside it a (white) fellow-customer with whom he had quarreled.
Occom, himself a Mohegan, was a Presbyterian divine whom the condemned solicited to deliver the hanging sermon. So the multitudes assembled were also treated to the edification of seeing an Indian preach from the scaffold, which may have been yet another first.
Occom’s sermon went predictably long on the hark-ye-to-this-warning Christian boilerplate (as a convert from heathenism, Occom did not want for zeal). But the speaker was also plainly self-conscious of his racial position,and took pains to invoke the egalitarianism of the afterlife:* the same death and judgment awaiting “Negroes, Indians, English, or … what nations soever.”
Given the liquor-induced crime that was even then a stereotype of Indian susceptibilities, Occom concluded “address[ing] myself to the Indians, my bretheren and kindred according to the flesh” with a call to temperance in view of the waste he saw laid to his own communities:
My Poor Kindred,
You see the woeful consequences of sin, by seeing this our poor miserable countryman now before us, who is to die this day for his sins and great wickedness. And it was the sin of drunkenness that has brought this destruction and untimely death upon him … this abominable, this beastly and accursed sin of drunkenness, that has stript us of every desirable comfort in this life; by this we are poor miserable and wretched; by this sin we have no name nor credit in the world among polite nations, for this sin we are despised in the world … when we are intoxicated with strong drink we drown our rational powers, by which we are distinguished from the brutal creation we unman ourselves, and bring ourselves not only level with the beasts of the field, but seven degrees beneath them.
Drunkenness is so common amongst us, that even our young men, (and what is still more shocking) young women are not ashamed to get drunk.
break off from your drunkenness … O let us reform our lives, and live as becomes dying creatures, in time to come. Let us be persuaded that we are accountable creatures to God, and we must be called to an account in a few days … Fight against all sins, and especially the sin that easily besets you, and behave in time to come as becomes rational creatures.
Ava Chamberlain’s “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut”, published in The New England Quarterly (September 2004) has a detailed summary of this case, Paul’s unsuccessful efforts to appeal around the question of premeditation, and the historiographical riddle left by Occom’s voluble commentary vis-a-vis his subject’s near-total silence.
* Our colonial Calvinist anticipated Marxist aphorists with the remark, “whether we concern ourselves with death or not, it will concern itself with us.” The colonists present probably would have appreciated the occasion more had they known they were participating in an Internet meme.