On Friday, December 4, 1789, William Mooney Fitzgerald and John Clark were scheduled to appear before the court in St. John, New Brunswick. They were to learn their sentence after being tried and found guilty of burglary the day before. That morning, Rev. Charles William Milton entered their prison cell and later wrote that he found “two unhappy men, surrounded with chains, expecting every moment to have sentence of death pronounced on them,” which “together with the disagreeable stench which arose from them, so affected me, that I was speechless for some time.”
After meeting Fitzgerald and Clark, Milton accompanied the two convicts to the court, where at noon the Honorable Judge Upham pronounced a sentence of death on them and ordered that they be held in jail until their execution on December 18.
The Head of the White Boys
William Mooney Fitzgerald was born in June 1763 in the city of Limerick, Ireland. His parents were honest and creditable, but at the age of sixteen he joined the White Boy gang and became their leader.
The White Boys were a band of agrarian Irish-Catholic insurgents who committed violent offences starting around 1759 to protest enclosures of common land, evictions from rented land, and exorbitant tithes. They took their name from the white smocks they wore as uniforms, and they were accused of carrying out “dreadful barbarities” on people who did not follow their orders or join their gang:
they cut out their tongues, amputated their noses or ears; they made them ride many miles in the night on horseback, naked or bare-backed; they buried them naked in graves lined with furze [a thorny bush with yellow flowers] up to their chins; they plundered and often burned houses; they houghed [i.e., cut the hamstring] and maimed cattle; they seized arms, and horses, which they rode about the country, and levied money, at times even in the day (Sir Richard Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, From the Arrival of the English, 1802).
During the first half of the 1780’s when Fitzgerald headed the gang, White Boy activity seemed to focus on protesting tithe collections, although the institution in general had already begun to decline by this time.
While a member of the White Boys, Fitzgerald carried out several capital crimes. At the age of 19 he was condemned to death for committing rape, but for some reason was pardoned. In 1785 at the age of 22, he and six others broke into the home of Rev. Buckner and stole an astonishing 15,000 guineas without being detected. Justice finally caught up with Fitzgerald when that same year he was caught and sentenced to death under the White Boy Act, but he was reprieved on condition of being transported to Botany Bay.
Fitzgerald boarded a ship with 138 other convicts, but instead of proceeding down the coast of Africa and eastward towards Australia, the captain headed in the opposite direction. He sailed towards Nova Scotia with the intention of selling the convicts as indentured servants. The captain’s scheme was easily discovered, so he dumped his shipload of convicts near Little River in Massachusetts (which later became part of the state of Maine).
Fitzgerald committed two thefts while in Massachusetts before fleeing to St. John in New Brunswick, where he met up with some of his fellow convicts from the ship. They committed several thefts together before Fitzgerald and Clark teamed up and were arrested for the burglary of William Knutten’s house.
An Unusual Pardon
John Clark was also born in Ireland around the same time as Fitzgerald. After displeasing his father through his conduct and actions, Clark joined the army, but then deserted it and became a thief. He rejoined the army, but before he could desert again, he was shipped off to America to fight in the American Revolution. Clark was discharged after the war, but he re-enlisted in another regiment, only to be discharged again after being tried by court martial for thefts and misdemeanors.
In 1786, Clark and two others were tried and sentenced to death for burglary in Halifax. But Clark received a pardon on condition that he carry out the execution of the two other burglars, which he did with their consent. Despite this near miss, Clark continued to commit even more thefts in Nova Scotia.
On October 18, 1788, Clark traveled to St. John, where he met one of the women from Fitzgerald’s convict ship. She and another woman convinced Clark to carry out with Fitzgerald the burglary that led to their arrest.
Regular Visits in Prison
As Fitzgerald and Clark came out of the court room after their sentencing, Rev. Milton handed them a Bible. He later discovered that Fitzgerald not only was brought up as a “rigid papist,” but that he was illiterate, so Clark volunteered to read to his partner. Milton visited the two prisoners every day to discuss the Gospel. On the fourth day, Milton was advised to limit his visits so as to avoid offending the public, but after some reflection he “without hesitation, rejected the advice, as coming from the father of lies.”
On the Sunday before their execution at three o’clock in the afternoon, Milton preached in front of the jail. The convicts stood on a snow bank and Clark on top of a table, and despite the extreme cold, a large group of people turned out to hear his sermon and gawk at the prisoners. Before Milton began his speech, Clark asked permission to read a confession to the public, which was granted. Many tears were shed during the sermon, and afterward the “prisoners appeared very much resigned.”
On Wednesday, the judge ordered Fitzgerald and Clark to hear their death warrant read aloud, and by their own request their coffins were delivered into their jail cell. Milton wrote that the sight of them lying in their coffins was one “which no feeling mind could behold without being affected.”
While in prison, Fitzgerald supplied to the authorities a list of seventeen convicts he knew from the ship that transported him, along with their crimes. Eight of the convicts were transported for shoplifting or theft, and four committed animal theft. Others were banished for highway robbery, coining, and rape.
Milton’s regular visits must have had their effect, because on the day of their execution he found Fitzgerald and Clark “as much composed as if they were about going a pleasant journey.” The two walked to their place of execution on each side of the Reverend, who took leave of them after they ascended the ladder of the gallows. While moving up the rungs, Milton heard Clark observe that “every step he took was a step nearer to God.”
The two were executed at half past noon. “More solemnity,” Milton wrote, “was perhaps never observed at any execution before.”
- Milton, Charles William. Narrative of the Gracious Dealings of God in the Conversion of Wm. Mooney Fitzgerald and John Clark. Exeter: Re-printed by Henry Ranlet, 1793. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
- Musgrave, Sir Richard. Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, From the Arrival of the English. Vol. I. Third edition. Dublin: Robert Marchbank, 1802. Database: Google Books, http://books.google.com.
- “St. John’s (N. B.) Dec. 22.” The Pennsylvania Packet. January 25, 1790, issue 3428, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Whiteboys.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. Database: Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com.