1780: The Biggerstaff Hanging Tree earns its name

Add comment October 14th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, American Revolution patriots hanged nine captive loyalist prisoners in North Carolina, in the wake of the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Although the colonials would ultimately accomplish their break with the British Empire, the British and their local loyalists had a strong run in a southern campaign from about 1778.

But even at their acme, the redcoats could not extend their writ westward past the Appalachian Mountains, into the frontiers where hunger to swallow up Indian land made for ferocious adherence to the pro-independence cause, since the Crown was trying to limit settler expansion in those zones. The ones who turned their muskets against their king would become known as the “Overmountain Men” — and the Battle of King’s Mountain was their glory.

Feeling their oats after thrashing Horatio Gates‘s rebel army at the Battle of Camden — seen here in the Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger movie The Patriot

— the Brits sent the capable Scottish Major Patrick Ferguson into the mountains to roust out the irregulars. After some weeks of maneuver, Ferguson faced off with the Overmountain Men on October 7 at a wooded crag just south of the border between the Carolinas: barely a “mountain”, and definitely not the king’s. In an hourlong fight, the Overmountain militia overwhelmed Ferguson’s command, killing Ferguson himself.

Historical novel about the events surrounding King’s Mountain. (Review)

It was a stunning blow to the British, and checked that rampant southern campaign; as British prospects slipped away in subsequent years, King’s Mountain would loom as a mighty portent. The British commander Sir Henry Clinton considered King’s Mountain “the first link in a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.” In a more buoyant mood, Thomas Jefferson judged this battle “the joyful annunciation of the turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the Seal of our independence.”

Not so joyful were nearly 700 Tory prisoners whom the colonial militia hurriedly marched west to Gilbert Town (present-day Rutherfordton) in the western reaches of North Carolina. The militia’s blood was up already from British atrocities; at King’s Mountain, the British had difficulty surrendering to baying guerrillas who killed the first man to offer the white flag, baying for revenge upon previous massacres of patriots.

While holding their prisoners at the farm of Aaron Biggerstaff — a Tory who had been killed at King’s Mountain, even as his Patriot brother languished in British custody — word reached the Overmountain Men that yet more revolutionists had been executed in British custody.

Vowing to put a stop to this this, they put 36 of their prisoners to a drumhead trial on October 14 and sentenced them all to death. Nine of them were actually hanged that evening, three by three: Ambrose Mills, Robert Wilson, James Chitwood, Arthur Grimes, Thomas Lafferty, Walter Gilkey, John McFall, John Bibby, and Augustine Hobbs. Mills, a colonel and the leader of the loyalist forces in this western county, was the most prominent of the bunch.

Intercession by Patriot officers and the Biggerstaff women put a stop to the proceedings; the other 27 “condemned” were simply suffered to return to the horde of POWs, and marched out the next morning.

A sign noting the place of the Biggerstaff Hanging Tree is one of the markers on the National Parks Service’s Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.

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1780: Johann Heinrich Waser, persecuted whistleblower

Add comment May 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, statistician Johann Heinrich Waser

“One of the most spectacular and horrific treason cases of the late eighteenth century” in the words of Jeffrey Freedman (A Poisoned Chalice | here’s a review) — one that “shattered the complacent belief that such a brutal and cynical act of repression could no longer occur in an age of Enlightenment, let alone in Switzerland, the land of William Tell, republican virtue, and free, self-governing citizens.” Subsequent centuries laugh in bitter commiseration.

Initially a pastor, Waser’s idealism had not been fully wrung out in the seminary and so he got himself fired from his Zurich-area parish for complaining too loudly about the oligarchic graft that left his flock’s poor relief barren.

Nothing daunted, he effected a career change and “threw himself with zeal and success into all researches in natural history, history, agriculture and statistics.” He surely had little notion that this technocratic exercise could imperil his life … but as with his time in the ministry, he suffered for his inability to pay the tithe of politic hypocrisy to the unrighteous mighty. Freedman again:

One of Waser’s demographic studies uncovered evidence of a stagnating and even declining population in certain rural districts. To Waser (and indeed to cameralists in general) it was axiomatic that a growing population was good, that it was both cause and symptom of economic prosperity. So the evidence of a stagnating and declining population demanded an explanation, which Waser believed he had found in the trade in mercenaries practiced by the Swiss cantons. With this, Waser was touching upon a very delicate subject indeed, for the trade in mercenaries was not only a useful safety valve for disposing of excess population, it was a major source of fiscal revenue. Yet Waser condemned the lucrative trade without restraint, documenting with hard statistical evidence the population losses it caused; and he drove home his point with anecdotes such as the following, which appeared in the introduction to a study provocatively entitled, “Swiss Blood, French Money”:

With the General Stuppa in attendance, the Marquis de Lauvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV, is supposed once t0o have said to his king: “Sire, if you had all the gold and silver paid by yourself and your royal ancestors to the Swiss, you would be able to pave the highway from Paris to Basel with Thalers.” Whereupon General Stuppa declared: “Sire, that may well be so; but if it were possible to collect all the blood shed by our nation for you and your royal ancestors, one could build a navigable canal from Paris to Basel.

Waser’s incautious muckraking got him the Julian Assange treatment: he’d be condemned for treasonably stealing the information he reported for the public weal; in an attempt to blacken his name, he was even spuriously investigated for poisoning the sacramental wine.

The May 27 beheading of the “unhappy pastor” raised a clamor of European outrage against Zurich’s oligarchs. True, the salon-dwelling demographic liable to such a sentiment had no power to chastise. But it at least enjoyed the satisfaction inside of 20 years to see the lords toppled who had built Waser’s scaffold … thanks, appropriately enough, to the French.

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1780: Dennis Carragan, John Hill, and Marmaduke Grant, robbers

Add comment May 6th, 2019 Headsman


From the Pennsylvania Packet, May 23, 1780.

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1780: Elizabeth Butchill, Trinity College Cambridge bedding-girl

2 comments March 17th, 2019 Headsman

A Cambridge University servant was hanged on this date in 1780 for infanticide.

Elizabeth Butchill made her way turning down the beds for the boys attending Trinity College, work she had secured via her aunt who held the same position. She somehow got pregnant, an event which does not appear to have inordinately exercised her eventual judges perhaps by virtue of its very obviousness; as Frank McLynn wryly observes, “It does not need the imagination of a novelist to reconstruct the events that led her to the gallows.”

She was surely desperate to avoid social opprobrium and unemployment, so we find from the Newgate Calendar that “she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning [January 6, 1780], about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house.”

“Modest, patient, and penitent” during her confinement awaiting the noose, Butchill died

firm, resigned, and exemplary. She joined with the minister in prayer, and sung the lamentation of a sinner with marks of a sincere penitent, declaring she had made her peace with God, and was reconciled to her fate. Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

Whether the nameless infant’s nameless father shared those tears is a matter for the novelist’s imagination.

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1780: Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange, for carrying off the Miss Kennedy’s

Add comment December 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Today’s short and plaintive broadsheet arrives via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland, a source we have enjoyed often in the past.

Though we have seen elsewhere via Kelly the capital prosecution of Catholic-Protestant marriages; these, however, appear by the thin text to be instances of the old tradition of bride-stealing — a practice which could straddle the vast distance from elopement ritual and kidnapping/rape.

The implication of these texts is that the men did the former, but got prosecuted for the latter: whether that’s down to an initial misunderstanding between the partners, to a change of heart by the wives Kennedy, to the pressure applied by disapproving in-laws, or some other cause, one can only guess.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Declaration of Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange

Good People,

As we have for some time past excited the publick attention, it may be expected in our last moments to say a few words regarding the cause for which we suffer. As to our births; we have come from respectable families near Graigenamana, in the counties of Ki[l]kenny and Carlow; from an early acquaintance with the Miss Kennedy’s, we unfortunately conceived an affection for them, grounded on the most virtuous and honourable terms; they received our addresses and seemed to approve of our passions by the mutual exchange of their love for ours; but alas! how we have been deceived.

Thus encouraged with the many repeated assurances that we were not disagreeable, made us imprudently determine to take them away, which resolution we unhappily put in execution, and immediately after, married them, and during the time of their living with us no woman could be happier, as we used them in the most tender, loving and affectionate manner; however, illnatured people have shamefully propagated, that we treated them ungentleman-like; but such ill-natured reports have been founded and circulated by malice, and, we hope, in the humane and honest mind will have no weight.

We freely forgive our unnatural wives, beseeching the Searcher of all Hearts, when they appear before his awful tribunal, will mitigate the cruelty they have shown to us, and receive them into the mansions of bliss. We die members of the Church of Rome, in peace with the world, in the 23d and 20th years of our age, and may the Lord have mercy on our Souls

Gerald Byrne, James Strange


The last Speech of Patrick Strange, who was executed for aiding and assisting in taking away the Miss Kennedy’s

Good Christians,

As it is usual for persons in my unhappy situation to give some account of their past life, I shall only trespass on the public, to mention, that I was born in the county of Carlow, come from a reputable family, and always preserved an unblemished character, the cause I die for was of assisting Mess Byrne and Strange, in carrying away the Miss Kennedy’s. I forgive my prosecutors, requesting the prayers of all good Christians, and depart in peace with mankind, in the 24th year of my age.

Patrick Strange

ENISCORTHY: Printed by R. JONES

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1780: John Gamble, anti-Wilmot

Add comment July 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.

These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.

Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.

Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.

“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”

This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.

The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.

“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”

London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:

the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.

Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.

(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)

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1780: Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, if that was his real name

Add comment March 5th, 2013 Headsman

According to some newspaper accounts deemed credible enough by almanacs and registers of the time, a British officer named Hamilton Ballendine was hanged by the Americans during the Siege of Charleston. The good colonel had thought he was approaching his own British sentries after a reconnoiter of Charleston’s defenses, and when hailed he provided this name.

His name, or his alias, or his password — whatever it was, it was not recognized by the sentries, who turned out in fact to be the colonial pickets. At that point, he was a spy caught red-handed, and these folks tended to get short shrift during the American Revolution.

This event has struck some observers as conspicuous by its absence from any of the numerous firsthand diarists’ accounts within the besieged city. The account in this footnote, recopied in its entirety below, appears to be the sum of the information on the matter. Judge accordingly, gentle reader.


In the Siege of Charlestown (Munsell), 68, we find the following: —

EXECUTION OF COLONEL HAMILTON BALLENDINE.

(From Dunlop’s Packet of April, 1780.)

WILLIAMSBURG IN VIRGINIA, APRIL 18.

On the 5th Ult. was hanged at Charlestown, South Carolina, Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, for drawing Draughts of the town and Fortifications. He was taken by a Picquet Guard, which General Lincoln sent out that Night to Stono, as he was making his Way to the enemy; and when he was hailed by the Guard his Answer was, ‘Colonel Hamilton Ballendine.’ The Guard told him that would not do, and carried him to the commander of the Picquet, upon which he pulled out of his pocket the Draughts. The Officer told him he was mistaken, and carried him to General Lincoln, who ordered him for Execution.” —New York Royal Gazette, April 16.

See, also, Moore’s Diary of the Revolution, vol. II, 260. The story is also incorporated in the text of the Annual Register for 1780 (London), vol. XXIII, 222, in which it is said that Ballendine suffered “the unpitied death of a traitor.” Both Simms (So. Ca. in the Revolutionary War, 177) and Draper (King’s Mountain and its Heroes, 22, note) call attention to the fact that the story is mentioned by none of the South Carolina historians, nor any of the Charlestown diarists or letter writers. Draper seems to doubt if there was any such person. In the So. Ca. and Am. Gen. Gazette, June 9, 1775, Hamilton Ballentine advertises a power of attorney to receive a legacy due and collect the assets of an estate. There was therefore doubtless such a person, but what became of him is not further known. His name is not on the list of those whose estates were confiscated (Statutes of So. Ca., vol. VI), where it probably would be found had the story been true. It is scarcely possible that such an event would have been overlooked by all the writers and diarists of the time, and not have been preserved by local tradition; and yet the particularity of the statement, and its acceptance by the Annual Register at the time, would suggest that there must have been some foundation for the statement.

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1780: Five for the Gordon Riots

1 comment July 11th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1780 saw three men and two women hanged at various spots around London for the previous month’s Gordon Riots. They were the first five souls among 19 who would suffer the last extremity of the law for that disturbance.

The eponymous Protestant Lord George Gordon, had inflamed a mob against the 1778 Papists Act, which disencumbered British Catholics of some of their legal disabilities. (In part to pad out the redcoat ranks as the army found itself stretched thin by the American Revolution.)

The Gordon Riots started from Lord Gordon’s march on Parliament to serve it an anti-Catholic petition, and turned into five days of anti-Catholic mayhem before the troops were finally called out to quell it. (The want of a standing professional police force was among the deficiencies London encountered.)


This did not help Britain’s diplomatic overtures towards Habsburg Austria.

But the matter metastasized well beyond a merely sectarian event: a mass rally originating in the working-class Moorfields took an unmistakable class dynamic — assailing Newgate Prison and The Clink, liberating convicts in the process. The latter dungeon would never resume operations. “Crimping houses” for impressed sailors and “sponging houses” imprisoning debtors were also liberated.

Alongside white sailors and day laborers, London’s emerging black population would feature prominently in this affair. A “copper coloured person,” a former slave named John Glover, was observed at the front rank of those torching Newgate. Peter Linebaugh attributes to Glover the incendiary (and, as it turned out, credible) threat, “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” (Glover was condemned to death, but reprieved for likely-fatal servitude on the African coast.)

Three of the five executed in London on this date were hanged at Tower Hill, including both women, Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner. Gardiner, like Glover, was an African; she and Roberts had helped sack the house of an Italian Catholic innkeeper.

Although nineteen folks put to death within a month and a half hardly constitutes giving the rioters a pass, it’s somewhat striking in view of the unabashedly anti-authority conflagration in hemp-happy 18th-century England that the death toll wasn’t greater. And it could have been: in a treatment in the December 1997 History Today, Marika Sherwood reports that fully 326 people were tried for some role in the Gordon Riots. But elites’ sense of the situation may well be captured by Edmund Burke’s remark,

If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.

Less than two score were actually condemned to death for all this mess, and barely half of them were actually executed.


The 19th century writer Charles Dickens set his very first historical novel,* Barnaby Rudge, during the riots, and has his fictitious lead characters among the crops doomed to the scaffold.

(As we have seen several times, Dickens abhorred public executions, a circumstance also apparent in this passage.)

Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield‘s** ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women,† too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.


Gordon himself, an odd duck, had better resources than these poor saps, and repelled a treason prosecution.

However, fate still ordained him a death in Newgate Prison — by illness many years later, after being convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette. By that time, the former Anglican rabble-rouser had converted to Orthodox Judaism, circumcision and all.

* The first of just two historical novels for Dickens; the second, of course, was A Tale of Two Cities.

** We’ve met Lord Mansfield before, articulating the jurisprudence of a slave society. His home was also targeted by Moorsfield rioters.

† Dickens is wrong about “four wretched women” being hanged: Gardiner and Roberts, our day’s pair, were the only two. Evidently, though, these two were arresting enough in the public conscience to forge “memories” of entire cartloads of ladies gone to Tyburn. (n.b.: none of the Gordon Rioters were hanged at Tyburn, either.)

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1780: Corregidor Antonio de Arriaga, by his slave

1 comment November 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1780, Incan-Peruvian indigenous leader Tupac Amaru launched his insurrection against the Spanish with the public execution of a Spanish corregidor.

Antonio de Arriaga, as Spain’s man in Tungasuca, had as part of his job description forcing curacas to extract the crown’s tribute from the natives. This put some tension between him and the likes of the strong-willed Tupac Amaru, who advocated fiercely enough for his people’s rights that Arriaga threatened him with death.

It also made Arriaga’s death an invitingly emblematic scene to open the indigenous revolt.

On Nov. 4, 1780, Tupac Amaru kidnapped Arriaga returning from a dinner party, then forced him to sign letters summoning Spaniards and curacas alike to Tungasuca.

There, he mustered his own force of armed natives and performed for them a “carefully staged public ceremony.”

According to a primary source excerpted in The Tupac Amaru and Catarista Rebellions

Account of the Most Horrible Crime Committed by Jose Gabriel Tupac Amaru, Cacique of Pampamarca

On the morning of Friday, November 10th, Tupac Amaru ordered that three columns … be organized from all the people from his Province that were already there. Two were composed of Spaniards and Mestizos armed with muskets, sabers, and sticks; and one of Indians with slings. In the middle of this, he brought out the Corregidor, dressed in his military uniform, and publicly started taking his uniform off, stripping him of his rank following the rituals he had understood and seen in other occasions, until he was left in his shirt. He then put a shroud on him … that had the title of La Caridad on it. He then gave the order to take him to the gallows, accompanied by the Priest and two other clergymen, where he went with a resignation and patience worthy of somebody who was already touching the portals of eternity.

Once on the gallows the Corregidor was forced by the tyrant to publicly declare that he deserved to die in that way. A black slave of the Corregidor [named Antonio Oblitas -ed.] served as his executioner, but the ropes snapped and both fell to the ground. But they suspended them again with a lariat around their necks, and thus they completed the execution in clear sight and tolerance of all his Province. [“they” is as rendered in the book; I have no indication that more than one person was executed. -ed.] Not one voice was raised that would disturb the operation. And most surprising of all was that those same Collectors and those close to the Corregidor were the ones who (oh, what an awful spectacle of perfidy!) sped his way to the ignominious place of execution, and who pulled on his feet so he could die even more violently.

The rebellion, needless to say, was on.

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1780: David Dawson and Ralph Morden, Quaker “traitors”

4 comments November 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, two unconnected Quakers were hanged for two unconnected treason convictions in two different cities in Pennsylvania.

The public executions of Ralph Morden in Easton, Pa., and David Dawson in Philadelphia (in a double hanging along with counterfeiter Richard Chamberlain) had the unusual distinction of being treason convictions against the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War, rather than against any sort of federal entity.

According to the Espy File of American executions, there were only 15 people put to death for treason* during the Revolutionary War. It’s a remarkably low figure under the circumstances — separatist colonial conflict that often pitted revolutionary neighbor against loyalist neighbor.

Morden, a Quaker who kept his head down during the war, agreed to guide one Robert Land, a Tory who needed to slip past Continental sentries, and of course didn’t make it. His case is summarized here, here and here.**

Less is readily available about Dawson, but a fellow-prisoner (and fellow-Quaker) left an account remembering that he and the counterfeiter Chamberlain

were taken out amidst a crowd of spectators — they walked after a cart in which were two coffins and a ladder, etc., each had a rope about his neck and their arms tied behin [sic] them … they were both hanged in the commons of this city abt. 1 o’clock.

This prisoner, Samuel Rowland Fisher, kept a two-year journal (pdf) of his imprisonment in Philadelphia for Tory sympathies, and as one might imagine paints an unflattering picture of the revolutionary “State as they call it.” In his view, Dawson’s hanging was a

greater act of Cruelty in the present Rulers than anything they have heretofore done, for they never gave him even a shadow of a tryal in their own fashion & they have executed him merely as what they call a proscribed person because he came into the City while the Brittish Army lay here, the circumstances of which was, that he was coming from his abode with his Waggon, that being in danger of his life from some of Washington’s Men he fled into the City & left & lost his Wagon, Horses, provisions &c — He never acted in any manner under Brittish, nor had he taken the Test to the present Usurpers, he did not go with the Brittish Army to New York, but had secreted himself in various places till he was betrayed by Jamed Reed last Spring & taken prisoner

Quaker Notes

Quakers who stuck by the sect’s pacifist teachings had a tough go of the American Revolution, often lumped in as Tories by patriots and subject to spasms of popular abuse, official writs confiscating their property, and other indignities from those who considered them “the unfriendly Quakers … notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty.”† That same prejudice occasionally exposed Quakers to the severest punishments for perceived crimes.

Thus Morden, who presumably helped the British agent as a personal gesture of assistance, an everyday “crime” for which hanging was an extreme stricture: one hundred Continental dollars from Chamberlain’s press to the reader who can demonstrate that this was one of the 15 most treasonable acts committed behind American lines. But confronted with the request in a time of war, what was the neutral, pacifist choice?

“A man was hanged this morning,” one British officer’s diary recorded, “for piloting some people through the back woods, to the Indians. He was very old and left a wife and 9 children. His death was chiefly owing to his being a noted friend of Government.” (Cited by John Coleman in “The Treason of Ralph Morden and Robert Land,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Oct. 1955)

Dawson, meanwhile, had worked for the British during the city’s recent occupation by General William Howe and was one of many so-called Loyalists “attainted of High Treason” and stripped of property by the state. Still, the British had been gone more than two years by the time he hanged.

Egged by Benedict

What might have upgraded Dawson’s sentence to a capital one was having the bad sense to be apprehended around the same time news arrived that Benedict Arnold had betrayed the Revolutionary cause two months before this date.

Arnold had recently been stationed in Philadelphia, and there controversially married into a Tory family. The betrayal he wrought thereafter was keenly felt in the cradle of liberty, and Arnold’s

effigy was paraded through the streets and hanged, his wife was ordered to leave the city within fourteen days, and his estate was confiscated. Still more rigorous proceedings were instituted against the tories and Quakers, one of whom [Dawson -ed.] was convicted of high treason and hanged. (Source.)

Discipline and Punish

Since we are students of the morbid here, let us also pause to notice the strikingly throwback nature of the punishment — not merely the fact that the Dawson-Chamberlain hanging was public, but that they were so theatrically marched to it, with ropes drawn about necks like the false Martin Guerre.

Not only did the treason conviction belong to a pre-American jurisprudence — against the state, yes, but also of a broader British conception of treason that the still-to-come U.S. Constitution would sharply curtail — but the resulting sentence is sharply at odds with Pennsylvania’s historical image as a a haven of penal reform.

Before the decade was out, the Keystone State would establish itself as an international epicenter of the movement away from harsh and (to us) primitive-sounding judicial sanctions, reconceptualizing punishment into the ordered prison system still familiar today. Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes but murder by the turn of the century (it had made liberal use of the rope to punish crimes like burglary before that), and even murder hangings were not frequent.

Quakers, and Quaker philosophy, were instrumental in the shift.

If the thought that led to that sea change came from a deeper place, it may yet have been informed by the episodic recent history of the revolution: according to Gail Stuart Rowe’s Embattled Bench, there were around 700 indictments and attainders for treason or misprision of treason in Pennsylvania throughout the American Revolution, and these resulted in only four hangings.

All four of the hanged were Quakers.

* The Espy file is an outstanding resource, with the intent to document every execution that took place in what is now the United States since its colonial antecedents. However, it is not necessarily reliable that it actually does this, so the precise figure of 15 should not be depended upon too greatly.

** Land himself managed to escape from the ambush, leaving only Morden to face the music. The interest in his fate seems to come from genealogists; according to this site, Charles Lindbergh numbered among his descendants — bringing us to another century’s death penalty.

† That was George Washington, cited in George Washington and Slavery. However, according to this listing of famous Quakers, other notable patriots like revolutionary Gen. Nathanael Greene, flag-stitcher Betsy Ross and polemicist Thomas Paine were Quakers, too.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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