1778: James “Sandy Flash” Fitzpatrick

4 comments September 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Revolutionary War-era bandit James Fitzpatrick was hanged — very badly — at Chester, Pennsylvania.

Fitzpatrick was then, and still is now, a legendary character in Chester County. He’s better known as “Captain Fitz” or, with a bit more flair, “Sandy Flash”.

Born to Irish immigrants in Chester, Fitzpatrick joined up with the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out.

But after being subject to the commonplace but brutal punishment of flogging for some failure of military discipline, Fitzpatrick deserted, swimming off Long Island in the dead of night and eventually returning home. There, he was recognized as a deserter and clapped in jail until he agreed to fight again.

All this built up a terrific grudge in the young man’s heart, and he “agreed” just long enough to get out from behind bars and abscond again. After warding off yet another press gang sent to retrieve him, Fitzpatrick vengefully took to the road.

This was not necessarily out of bounds for Fitzpatrick’s milieu. As detailed by Rosemary Warden (“‘The Infamous Fitch’: The Tory Bandit, James Fitzpatrick of Chester County,” Pennsylvania History Summer 1995):

Fitzpatrick’s bold outlawry must be seen against the background of many Chester Countians’ lack ofsupport for the Revolution, ranging from passive neutrality to outright loyalism. Forty percent were Quaker, settled most heavily in the eastern township. Only a small number actively supported the Revolution or the British cause … Fitzpatrick’s two favorite targets, militia recruiters and tax collectors, often met violent opposition in Chester County during this period, and not always from loyalists …

It is not surprising that revolutionary General Anthony Wayne wrote to Council President Thomas Wharton in the spring of 1778, to suggest that he stop recruiting troops in Chester County, a wasted effort, and concentrate on raising men in Berks, Lancaster, York, or Cumberland Counties. Nor is it surprising that a loyalist bandit who particularly targeted militia officers would find clandestine support and safe hideouts in Cheser County.

Playing to the hilt the part of “Tory highwayman,” Captain Fitz targeted Chester County Whigs, and especially agents of the revolutionary government. And he did not neglect the opportunity to inflict with the flog the suffering he had once endured himself. Still,

Despite his many crimes, there was a rough chivalry in the character of the man which exhibited itself in his marked gallantry towards women, in his open, generous disposition to aid them on when ill fortune bore heavily; indeed, he was never known to rob a poor man or ill-treat a female. Many are the instances related when he bestowed upon the destitute that which he had taken from those in good circumstances, and the weak or defenseless never suffered at his hands. On one occasion an old woman, who made a meagre living by peddling from house to house odds and ends of female apparel, encountered Fitzpatrick in the neighborhood of Caln Friends’ meeting-house. She was at the time on her way to Philadelphia to buy goods, and all the money she possessed was on her person. She had never seen Capt. Fitzpatrick, and she informed, the tall, handsome stranger that she was told that the outlaw had made some demonstrations in that neighborhood a short time before, and she was afraid that she might fall in with him and be robbed of all her money. Fitzpatrick, by a few questions, drew from her the particulars of her business, and her difficulty in winning an honest livelihood. He then good naturedly told her she need be under no apprehension, Fitzpatrick never warred upon the weak or defenseless, that she was talking to that personage; and taking a purse from his pocket containing several gold pieces, he gave it to her to aid her in increasing her scanty stock of goods. Then, wishing her a safe journey, he turned into the woods and disappeared.

What a guy.

His prey among the Whig well-to-do not being constrained to treat Fitz with any similar measure of gallantry, the bandit was at length captured when, in the course of raiding a household, he briefly set down his weapons — and his hostages jumped him. (The hostages in question had an argument with each other afterwards over who should get the reward.)

“Sandy Flash” is a prominent character in Bayard Taylor‘s portrait of revolutionary Pennsylvania, The Story of Kennett, where, Turpin-like, he’s “transformed” (the author’s own words) “from a living terror into a romantic name.” Here, Bayard dramatizes an allegedly real exploit, in which Fitzpatrick boldly presents himself at a public inn* where a posse hunting him has holed up.

All eyes, turned towards the crossing of the roads, beheld, just rounding the corner-house, fifty paces distant, a short, broad-shouldered, determined figure, making directly for the tavern. His face was red and freckled, his thin lips half-parted with a grin which showed the flash of white teeth between them, and his eyes sparkled with the light of a cold, fierce courage. He had a double-barrelled musket on his shoulder, and there were four pistols in the tight leathern belt about his waist.

Barton turned deadly pale as he beheld this man. An astonished silence fell upon the group, but, the next moment, some voice exclaimed, in an undertone, which, nevertheless, every one heard,—

“By the living Lord! Sandy Flash himself!”

There was a general confused movement, of which Alfred Barton took advantage to partly cover his heavy body by one of the porch-pillars. Some of the volunteers started back, others pressed closer together. The pert youth, alone, who was to form the third party, brought his musket to his shoulder.

Quick as lightning Sandy Flash drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it at the young man’s breast.

“Ground arms!” he cried, “or you are a dead man.”

He was obeyed, although slowly and with grinding teeth.

“Stand aside!” he then commanded. “You have pluck, and I should hate to shoot you. Make way, the rest o’ ye! I’ve saved ye the trouble o’ ridin’ far to find me. Whoever puts finger to trigger, falls. Back, back, I say, and open the door for me!”

Still advancing as he spoke, and shifting his pistol so as to cover now one, now another of the group, he reached the tavern-porch. Some one opened the door of the barroom, which swung inwards. The highwayman strode directly to the bar, and there stood, facing the open door, while he cried to the trembling bar-keeper,—

“A glass o’ Rye, good and strong!”

It was set before him. Holding the musket in his arm, he took the glass, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, spinning a silver dollar into the air, said, as it rang upon the floor,—

“I stand treat to-day; let the rest o’ the gentlemen drink at my expense!”

He then walked out, and slowly retreated backwards towards the corner-house, covering his retreat with the levelled pistol, and the flash of his dauntless eye.

* Specifically, the Unicorn, a patriotic tavern. Filed under “small world”: this pub was owned by Joseph Shippen, the uncle of the woman who would marry soon-to-beturncoat Benedict Arnold.

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1755: Mark and Phillis, a landmark

1 comment September 18th, 2011 Headsman

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officers.”

Paul Revere‘s account of his midnight ride

This useful Cambridge landmark* so nearly catastrophic for the cause of American liberty had been supplied this date in 1755 by the fruit of American liberty’s original sin: slavery.

“Mark” was a Massachusetts slave who, for the crime of offing his master Captain John Codman — “willfully felloniously and Traiterously put a Deadly Poison called Arsenick into a Vial of Water” because Captain John had separated Mark from his family — was entombed in colonial cartography by means of hanging, tarring, and gibbeting in an iron cage.

This exceptional sentence was mirrored by the rare-for-North-America fate of burning alive meted out to Mark’s fellow-slave and co-conspirator, Phillis.

They were adjudged to have committed not merely murder, but that archaic offense of petty treason — betraying not their sovereign but their natural superior.

Besides Mark’s becoming a literal landmark, theirs was a landmark case: Mark and Phillis were the only people ever convicted (pdf) for petit treason in Massachusetts.

The records of this trial are preserved in a public domain volume available from Google books; we’re particularly drawn to a tangential mention in this tome of a British governor‘s defense of capital punishment as a specifically oligarchical strategy: “Whilst the people of this country lived from hand to mouth, and had very little wealth … capital punishment might in a great measure be avoided; but when by the acquisition, diffusion, and general intercourse of wealth, the temptations to fraud are abundantly increased, the terrors of it must be also proportionably enlarged; otherwise if, through a false tenderness for wicked men, the laws should not be sufficient to protect the property of the honest and industrious …”

borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Longfellow, who doesn’t mention Mark

* A nicely tarred corpse will really keep for you: one colonial doctor observing this gibbet in years past had noted that Mark’s “skin was but little broken altho’ he had been hanging there near three or four years.” This is the kind of Founding Fathers’ wisdom that latter-day America has so sadly turned its back on.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1776: Jamaican slave rebels

1 comment July 19th, 2011 Headsman

In our late constant disputes at our tables (where by the by every Person has his own waiting man behind him) we have I am afraid been too careless of Expressions, especially when the topic of American rebellion has been by the Disaffected amongst us, dwelt upon and brandished of with strains of Virtuous Heroism.

what mind of a Slave will not recoil and burn into Resentment; when he shall have been the frequent witness of Sedition and Ingratitude in the Conduct of his Master — when he shall hear the Obligation of a subject to his Lord spurn’d at — the Blood spilt by Rebells extoll’d … Obedience to Laws and Authority upon all these Occasions mentioned with a strong Idea of Slavery. And Men toasted into Immortal Honours for Encountering Death in every form, rather than submit to Slavery let its Chains be ever so gilded.

Dear Liberty has rang in the heart of every House-bred Slave, in one form or other, for these Ten years past — While we only talk’d about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us & it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our Domestics by our Wise-Acre Patriots.

–Rev. John Lindsay, Hanover Parish, Jamaica

On July 3, 1776, as tensions between the North American colonies and England came to a head, the garrison at Hanover, Jamaica sailed from Lucea to reinforce General William Howe.

The departure of this regiment was the pre-arranged signal for the parish’s slaves — both imported Coromantee and, more ominously for the slaveholder, the generally less-rebellious Creoles — to mount a general rising.

The only reason it didn’t happen was because it was sniffed out — after the regiment left, but before the date planned out by slaves passing word from estate to estate.

For a century or so, lucrative sugar and coffee cultivation on the island (and elsewhere around the thought to have been imported to Jamaica before the slave trade was abolished in 1808.

Planters reaped stupendous profits from this harvest of misery, but perpetually stood in danger of reaping the whirlwind, too. At the time of the intended rebellion, there were 20 or more slaves for every white around Hanover. A Hanover militia officer said in the days after the plot was uncovered that he was “deeply Concerned in the Intended Insurrection, the Number of the Troop is small and the Duty severe, Our apprehensions are great upon the occasion as we know not where it will end.” As the number of implicated slaves mounted past 100, a planter lamented that “there appears to be no end to this horrid affair.”

As jumpy as they were, the authorities managed to keep a lid on this situation through the usual methods, which gives this site its excuse to notice the affair.

We have try’d — found Guilty and Executed Yesterday the following Conspirators, Blue Hole Harry, and Leander of the Spring Estate, Charles of the Baulk, Peter of Batchelors Hall, Prince belonging to John Priest of Lucea, and Quamino to Sir Simon Clarke, these are the Chief Ring-leaders and the most Active in Promoting the Intended Insurrection and We propose proceeding tomorrow in trying the Other Chiefs.

-Report to Sir Basil Keith from the magistrates of Hanover, Jamaica, July 20, 1776

Slavery persisted in Jamaica, dogged by regular rebellions, for another 57 years, until Samuel Sharpe’s revolt helped finally convince Parliament to ban it. Whether that past is really past … that’s another question.

For more, see Richard B. Sheridan, “The Jamaican Slave Insurrection Scare of 1776 and the American Revolution,” The Journal of Negro History July, 1976, which is the source of the quotes in this article.

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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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1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird’s hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

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1786: David Nelson, but not William Horbord

Add comment June 23rd, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1786 offers us the fine legal salami-slicing of how to stanch a race war with a noose.

Our salami’s name is David Nelson, a furloughed veteran of the Queen’s Rangers in the late American Revolution relocated to the environs of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

There, he and a fellow veteran named William Horbord or Horboard shot dead a native Maliseet for stealing their hog.

This brought neighboring peoples to a deadly tense standoff. The Maliseet demanded justice for their victim; white Canadians demanded … well, the right to shoot Maliseet without fear of their own neck.

Nelson and Horbord went right on trial, but how to finesse the situation?

According to an exhibit that unfortunately seems to have vanished from the Virtual Museum of Canada, natives “camped out around the presiding Judge Kingsclear’s home.” That must have got his commute off to an awkward start each day.

So a Solomonic compromise obtained: after the two were duly convicted and doomed to hang, Nelson, the principal offender, was measured for his coffin … while Horbord, deemed less culpable, received a pardon.

Now that’s gallows diplomacy.

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1778: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, triggering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal?

3 comments November 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1778, the hanging in Philadelphia of two elderly Quakers for treason perhaps set in motion Benedict Arnold’s notorious defection from the American Revolution.

Brotherly love was a little scarce on the ground in Philly after Gen. William Howe occupied it for the British in 1777-1778.*

British control of the cradle of liberty exacerbated the social tensions swirling around the revolution, most particularly between radical revolutionaries and those of a more go-along, get-along variety. Plenty of North Americans, after all, were British loyalists. Plenty of others were fine with political independence but horrified at the more radically democratic ideas of, say, Tom Paine.

Pennsylvania had proven a relative bastion for militants, who authored its progressive 1776 constitution and imposed loyalty tests to disenfranchise Tories and neutrals. When Howe withdrew from Philadelphia, these elements returned, loaded for bear. Or in this case, Quakers.

Members of this sect were suspect to begin with for pacifism, which is the sort of ideology that would fail a loyalty test. Spurning a Moravian pitch for exemption from the oath, the authorities complained of

persons among us, preferring a slavish dependence on the British King, from prejudice, expectation from lucrative offices, or the most unworthy motives, and screening themselves from the notice of Government, by a professed neutrality, have, nevertheless, as soon as opportunity offered declared themselves in favour of our Enemies, and became active against the Liberties of America

Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, Quakers of an advanced age who had collaborated with the British, were thought to have done precisely this perfidious thing. In the sentence delivered to Roberts (the men had separate trials), the judge insisted his defendant was either with liberty, or against it.

Treason is a crime of the most dangerous and fatal consequence to society; it is of a most malignant nature; it is of a crimson colour and of a scarlet dye. Maliciously to deprive one man of life, merits the punishment of death, and blood for blood is a just restitution. What punishment, then, must he deserve, who joins the enemies of his country, and endeavours the total destruction of the lives, liberties, and property of all his fellow citizens; who wilfully aids and assists in so impious a cause; a cause which has been complicated with the horrid and crying sin of murdering thousands, who were not only innocent, but meritorious; and aggravated by burning some of them alive, and starving others to death. It is in vain to plead, that you have not personally acted in this wicked business; for all who countenance and assist, are partakers in the guilt.**

The wholesale purge such a logic would license was thankfully not forthcoming, because even revolutionary sentiment was uncomfortable with the treatment of these exemplars. Roberts’s own jury had to be cajoled into a conviction, and most of its members joined thousands of Philadelphians of different political stripes petitioning for mercy.

The post-Howe military governor of Philadelphia at this time was none other than Benedict Arnold, still an American general but putting himself ostentatiously into the tug-of-war over the proper revolutionary line with his profligate living and his courtship of a British-friendly merchant‘s daughter.

Arnold stuck his thumb in the radicals’ eye by hosting a party on the eve of this date’s hanging for society ladies of doubtful [revolutionary] virtue … prompting a fulsome protest by Joseph Reed

Treason, disaffection to the interests of America, and even assistance to the British interest, is called openly only error of judgment, which candour and liberality will overlook … it would astonish you to observe the weight of interest excited to pardon [Carlisle and Roberts] … will you not think it extraordinary that General Arnold made a public entertainment the night before last, of which not only common Tory ladies, but the wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the State, and now with the enemy at New York, formed a very considerable number. The fact is literally true.

Left- and right-wing factions of the revolution crystallized around Reed and Arnold, and the abuse of the more-patriotic-than-thou set soon wore on Gen. Arnold. The latter put his contacts with un-revolutionary Philadelphia to work — specifically, that merchant’s daughter’s former suitor, British Major John Andre. Arnold and Andre began their correspondence six months after Carlisle and Roberts hanged; little more than a year later, Arnold ditched the American revolution … and entered the American lexicon.

* This was the winter George Washington famously spent at Valley Forge, 20 miles from Philly.

** The sentence is as printed in in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Nov. 6, 1778. The magistrate concludes the sentence by pointing out that in Pennsylvania’s “leniency,” treason was punished “only” with hanging … while in the mother country, it could still get you drawn and quartered.

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1781: Isaac Hayne, paroled prisoner of war

2 comments August 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1781, South Carolina patriot Isaac Hayne was hanged for breaking his conditional British parole and re-enlisting in the American Revolution.

Though Hayne is not, to us, the most famous revolutionary executed by the British, he might have been considered by his contemporaries as the most prominent individual to go to the scaffold for the cause.

A wealthy planter (lots of slaves!) whose home and grave can still be toured in Jacksonboro, Hayne was among 5,000 to surrender to the British when the latter captured Charleston in 1780.

These prisoners were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown in exchange for their parole, which Hayne reluctantly agreed to do because his family had been hit with smallpox.

He declared to a friend that,

as they [the British] allow no other alternative than submission, or confinement in the capital, at a distance from my wife and family, at a time when they are in the most pressing need of my presence and support, I must, for the present, yield to the demands of the conquerors. I request you to bear in mind, that previous to my taking this step, I declare that it is contrary to my inclination, and forced on me by hard necessity. I will never bear arms against my country … I do not mean to desert the cause of America.

But as the British southern campaign foundered over the year ahead, the mother country eventually attempted to call him up to do just that: bear arms against his country.

Hayne thought his parole terms protected him from ever having to serve against the colonies, so he simply got back into the fight on the revolutionary side instead. He was captured in that capacity.

The British commander Francis Rawdon handled his relapsed prisoner with uncommon severity, putting him to a drumhead military tribunal with a preordained outcome and refusing the many public pleas for leniency.

The irregular and vengeful nature of these proceedings, and Hayne’s seemingly honorable conduct, raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic; shortly after hanging Hayne, Rawdon returned to the British Isles to find a good deal of pointed criticism of his behavior. (Parliament quashed any damaging official inquiry, and Lord Rawdon actually extracted an apology from the peer who had the temerity to motion the investigation — an intolerable impeachment on Rawdon’s honor.)

The Hayne incident was widely understood to have been conditioned by British frustration at its failing fortunes in the war. By the time of the execution, the redcoats held nothing of South Carolina save Charleston itself. General Cornwallis had recently marched north from the Palmetto State; in a few weeks’ time, he would surrender his sword and the British cause alike after the decisive British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia.

And though the commandants at Charleston scarcely anticipated that stunning reversal, they had only a few months before suffered the upsetting (but more legally tenable) hanging of the honorable British Major John Andre as a result of the Benedict Arnold affair. British forces were reputedly on the lookout for any opportunity to trade tit for tat.

Continental Gen. Nathaniel Greene alleged that the British officer who received the petition for Hayne’s life simply wrote on it John Andre — and sent it back.


Isaac Hayne was the great-uncle of South Carolina pol Robert Y. Hayne, best remembered for a hot sectional debate with Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster. (Read it all here, if you must.)

It was during this exchange of Senatorial disquisitions that Webster delivered one of the noted orations of the antebellum era, the aptly-named Second Reply to Hayne:

I have not allowed myself, Sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might lie hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this government, whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union may be best preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise! God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shine on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all it sample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, – Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseperable!

When not being rhetorically posterized by New England gasbags, Robert Hayne made time to pen a justification for his famous forebear’s conduct for the Southern Review in 1828 — comparing the British behavior of executing rather than detaining a prisoner who broke parole to the massacre at Jaffa Napoleon notoriously ordered in 1799.

(Actually, Isaac Hayne’s old nemesis Francis Rawdon had only died in 1826; Robert Hayne wrote his piece to confute a vindication of himself that Lord Rawdon — also recognized by his subsequent titles, Earl of Moira and Marquess of Hastings — had authored, decades after the fact, of his conduct in the Hayne matter.)

Though this 37-page slog of Robert Hayne’s is obviously in the public domain by now, it appears it is not yet freely available online. However, it’s the source of the otherwise unattributed quotes in this article.

Part of the Themed Set: The Empire Strikes Back.

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1782: Captain Joshua Huddy

2 comments April 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1782, Captain Joshua Huddy of the revolutionary New Jersey patriot militia was summarily (and extrajudicially) hanged on the New Jersey coast by the British Tories.

Huddy was a troublesome rascal in civilian life, a regular denizen of courts in his native Salem, Mass., and (upon transplant in 1778) Monmouth County, N.J.

Tory British Loyalists found him troublesome in the bare-knuckled revolutionary conflict in Monmouth, “often engaged in raids and revenge executions, which continued even after the war’s end.”

Huddy mounted various guerrilla raids in the area from 1779; his Loyalist opposite number actually captured him in 1780, but Huddy was freed by his comrades before he could be taken to the British.

Not so lucky this time.

On March 24, 1782, Loyalists overwhelmed Huddy’s fort at Toms River, N.J..

This was, de facto if not de jure, within the compass of those raids occurring after the war’s end, since at five months after Yorktown, the American Revolution was settled in all but name.

Huddy figured to be exchanged for Loyalist prisoners, but word came that a Monmouth County Tory named Philip White had been killed.

The last English royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin,* ordered Huddy’s execution in retaliation-slash-punishment without any form of court-martial. (It seems the Loyalist position was that Huddy had himself been involved in White’s death; the Patriots insisted that Huddy was already in British hands when White was killed.)

A note was found pinned to Huddy’s body, reading,

We the refugees, having with grief long beheld the cruel murders of our brethern, and finding nothing but such measures daily carrying into execution — we, therefore, determine not to suffer without taking vengeance for the numerous cruelties; and thus begin, and, I say, may those lose their liberty who do not follow on, and have made use of Captain Huddy as the first object to present to your view; and further determine to hang man for man while there is a refugee existing. Up goes Huddy for Philip White.

(Two other prisoners taken with Huddy were exchanged, and had the story to tell — including Huddy’s remark that he would “dye innocent and in a good cause.”)

This, of course, caused quite a hue and cry for vengeance on the Patriot side.

George Washington demanded Huddy’s executioner for a bit of tit-for-tat, but although the British repudiated the lawless hanging, they refused to give Washington his man. Richard Lippencott (or Lippincott) instead got a British trial in New York, skated on an only-following-orders defense, and subsequently retired to Canada to live to the ripe old age of 81.

The frustrated proto-Americans resorted to selecting a captured Yorktown officer by lot for a reprisal execution.

This lottery was “won” by the young British officer Charles Asgill, who stood for some months in danger of a politically awkward hanging even as the sides maneuvered towards the official end of the war.

Since Asgill turned out to be a charismatic, youthful officer of unblemished honor, nobody felt good about the situation; even Huddy’s widow asked for Asgill’s life to be spared. (Though that might also be because Huddy stiffed her in the will he scribbled out moments before death, written on the head of the barrel they used to hang him.)

Eventually, pressure from the Revolution’s French patrons — the hostage had a Huguenot mother — helped Asgill avoid hanging.**

Returned to the British, Asgill went on to become a very prominent general.

Nobody ever expiated Captain Joshua Huddy’s hanging.


Memorial for Joshua Huddy at Huddy Park in Highlands, N.J. Image (c) Sheena Chi and used with permission.

* Son of American patriotic luminary Benjamin Franklin. This is why you don’t talk politics with family.

** Upon his release from American custody, Asgill traveled to France to thank personally his royal saviors. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette could hardly have imagined that they would one day soon stand in Huddy’s shoes.

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1781: Mutinous ringleaders of the New Jersey line

2 comments January 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.

Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)

General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.

The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.

Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”

The mischief, however, extended.

The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.

Washington detailed Gen. Robert Howe to make an example.

Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.

And as Washington reported this afternoon to New Jersey Governor William Livingstonsuccess.

Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.

A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.

That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.

The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)

This in-the-field execution to enforce military discipline was a precedent later cited by Alexander Mackenzie to justify hanging Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small at sea for mutiny.

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