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Early American Criminals: Francis Burdett Personel and the Liberty Pole

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Constable Mr. Van Gelder was just about to abandon his search. He had recently been sent to New Haven, CT to find Francis Personel by New York City mayor Whitehead Hicks, who had learned that Personel was possibly hiding out in that city. But what Van Gelder did not know was that at the same time he was dispatched to New Haven, Personel was on his way back to New York City to test the safety of his return home and, if necessary, retrieve some of his possessions.

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor (Wikimedia Commons)

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor

Six weeks earlier on May 16, 1773, Personel had clubbed Robert White, Esq. in the head with a bar from a door near St. Paul’s Church (which is still standing at 209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets in Lower Manhattan). The blow fractured White’s head in several places, leaving him speechless and senseless. Several days later, White died from the wound, and Personel was charged with murder.

While Van Gelder fruitlessly searched for the accused murderer in New Haven, Personel determined that it was not yet safe for him to remain in New York City, so he hopped on a ship and headed back to Connecticut. The trip turned out to be remarkably quick, which must have lifted Personel’s spirits at the time. Except that the short journey helped deliver Personel right into the arms of Van Gelder, just as he was preparing to return to New York empty-handed.

On June 25, 1773, Personel was back on a ship–albeit this time in irons–and two days later he arrived again in New York City. Reports of Van Gelder’s capture of Personel appeared in many newspapers, but the salacious details and true motivation behind the murder only came out later, when Personel wrote An Authentic and Particular Account of his life.

A Strained Relationship

Francis Burdett Personel was originally from Ireland and was an only child to “careful and industrious parents.” He attended school for eight years but did not learn as much as his parents felt he should have within that time, so they bound him as an apprentice. Once he became master of his trade, he moved to England, but after his father died, he returned to Ireland to be with his mother.

The relationship turned out to be strained: “my mother being a passionate woman, could never be content with me; do what I could, I might have done it better.” One night, a friend who knew of the situation took Personel on a “frolic.” They met a young woman, went out for drinks, and ended up staying out late. Personel confessed, “She was the first lewd woman I was ever in company with” and from that point on he “was guilty of pleasing the sinful appetites of the flesh many times.”

Eager to get out of the reach of his mother, Personel traveled to America, where he stayed for eighteen months before returning to Ireland in a “poor and miserable condition.” After his return, his mother proposed that it was time for him to settle down and find a wife, and when Personel agreed and said that he would begin a search as soon as possible, she responded that she had already found one for him.

Personel was not the least attracted to his mother’s pick, and even though he resisted the match, his mother implored him day after day to marry her. Their disagreement eventually came to an end when the woman decided to marry another, but the episode was enough to drive Personel away from his mother permanently. He bound himself as an indentured servant and ended up in Baltimore County in Maryland.

Maryland

Personel’s new situation in Maryland turned out to be miserable, because his master mistreated him by depriving him of adequate clothing, a not uncommon situation for indentured servants. After serving eighteen months out of his four contracted years, Personel decided to run away. He grabbed an ax, headed into the woods, and traveled to within a mile of Baltimore. By then he was cold, wet, and hungry. He thought about returning, but he remembered his master saying once that he would treat a runaway servant who returned of his own volition worse than one who tried his best to get away, so he continued onward.

At mid-day, Personel ventured into town worried that someone would question him and ask for a pass from his master, which legally would have allowed him to travel alone as a servant. But no one seemed to notice him. Unable to procure a meal in Baltimore, he continued down a road that led to Annapolis when he was stopped and interrogated by two men. Personel told them that he belonged to Charles Carroll, who owned several plantations in the area and so everyone knew that his servants regularly traveled from one property to another. The men accepted Personel’s answer and did not question him any further.

Personel’s experience in Annapolis was similar to that in Baltimore: no one took any notice of him, but he could not find any food either. He left town feeble and hungry and was eventually stopped and questioned by another man. Personel said that he was recently set free from his master, who refused to pay him his freedom dues, so he traveled to Annapolis to find a friend, who had unfortunately left town before he arrived. The man told him that his brother was in need of laborers, so Personel took advantage of the opportunity and signed up to work for four months under the name “James Alkins.”

Personel worked through the harvest, but fearful that his new master might turn him in to his old one now that his services were no longer needed, he forged a pass under the name “Patt Percy” and left. He managed to find a job as a schoolmaster, but eventually two men began to suspect that he was a runaway, so he left the area. He later met a widow in Virginia and became engaged to her, but one day he took a mare, bridle, and saddle from her on the pretense of going to town and never came back. After traveling 100 miles, he sold the horse and headed to New York. [The editor of Personel’s Account notes that at this point, Personel may have been tried along with another man for horse theft in Lancaster, PA, but that the incident could not be verified.]

New York

After arriving in New York, Personel finally took a wife whom he loved, even though he “knew she had followed a loose way of life.” The morning after they had been “married and bedded,” Personel allowed her to pursue “her old habitation” until she could pay off some debts that now fell to him. But he soon could not bear the thought of this arrangement, and he vowed to work hard to satisfy all her needs. Not long afterward, he fell ill and could not work. Personel and his wife made a fateful decision: “we concluded unanimously, that we must either perish, or she take to her old course; accordingly, she prostituted her body as usual.”

On her first night out after making this decision, Personel’s wife returned home in a cheerful mood and reported that she had run into a young woman who lent her some money and thereby was able to avoid any interaction with men that night. The next night she returned home again, with money and a similar story. Personel eventually recovered from his illness, but his wife continued to go out at night any chance she got–with his encouragement. To keep up a show of respectability in front of the neighbors, some nights he would accompany his wife partway, visit a friend until nine or ten o’clock, and then meet up with her at an appointed place to return home.

On May 16, Personel visited his wife’s father and expected to stay the night, but instead he decided to return home. Thinking that her husband was sleeping over at her father’s, his wife stayed out much later than usual, so when it came time for Personel to go to bed and she had not returned, he decided to go out and search for her.

Personel went to the public house where he believed she was, but was told that she was not there, even though he heard his wife’s laugh in another room. He went around to the window where he had heard her and listened in as she conversed with two men. One of the men, a Mr. Gl—-r, left the room for fifteen minutes, and when he returned, the three of them headed outside. Personel believed that his wife would now take leave of the two men, and she could then return home with him. Instead, she continued down the street with one man on each of her arms.

St. Paul's Church, New York City, close to where Robert White's murder took place.

St. Paul’s Church, New York City, close to where Robert White’s murder took place.

Furious with jealousy, Personel went into the house where he had seen them, grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, which happened to be the wooden bar of the door, and pursued the threesome. When he caught up to them, he brought the bar down on the head of Robert White, who fell to the ground. As Personel’s wife ran off, he tackled Gl—-r, who begged for his life.

Gl—-r asked Personel why he had struck White, and Personel replied, “For being in company with my wife, in a bad house at an unseasonable hour.”

“Upon my honor,” responded Gl—-r, “I had no connection with her, nor have I reason to believe that Mr. White had.”

Personel said that if indeed the two were innocent, then he was sorry that he had struck them. Personel then noticed that White had not moved since falling to the ground. Seeing that some people were now approaching the scene, he ran off. Personel arrived home before his wife, spent the night, and then fled to New Haven.

Next to the Liberty Pole

After Personel was captured by Van Gelder and brought back from New Haven, the New York Supreme Court found Personel guilty of murder and sentenced him to be executed on September 10.

The editor of Personel’s Account notes that towards the end of his life Personel “appeared very cheerful and resigned to the will of God.” At the gallows–next to the Liberty Pole on the Common (where City Hall now stands, along with a replica of the Liberty Pole)–Personel addressed the crowd “with much composure, and resigned himself to the King of Terrors.”

Liberty Pole Marker - City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Liberty Pole Marker – City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Sources

  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place.” Pennsylvania Packet, August 9, 1773, vol. II, issue 94, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New–Haven, June 25.” Connecticut Journal, June 25, 1773, issue 297, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, June 28, 1773, issue 1131, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, July 1.” New-York Journal, July 1, 1773, issue 1591, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, June 24.” Pennsylvania Chronicle, June 28, 1773, vol. VII, issue 23, p. 304. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, September 13.” New-York Gazette, September 13, 1773, issue 1142, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Personel, Francis Burdett. An Authentic and Particular Account of the Life of Francis Burdett Personel, Written by Himself. New York, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

One Comment

  1. CA wrote:

    Excellent website!

    Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

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