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Early American Criminals: Thomas Hellier’s “Hell upon Earth”

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With the ill treatment by his mistress “burning and broyling in [his] Breast,” Thomas Hellier, an indentured servant on a Virginia plantation, knew he had to escape. In 1677, Hellier was tricked into signing an indentured servant contract back in England with the promise that he would not be forced to perform physical labor and would instead be put to work in some trade that took advantage of his considerable skills and education.

After crossing the Atlantic and arriving in Virginia, Hellier was delivered to Lewis Conner. Connor owned a huge estate, which he amassed by taking advantage of a Virginia law that granted 50 acres to anyone who paid for the overseas passage of a servant. Conner would import servants, collect the land rights, and then sell them to someone else for an additional profit. In this way he acquired 1,280 acres in Nansemond County, and by 1704 he owned 2,200 acres in Norfolk County, the third largest total owned by one person.

Connor sold Hellier to Cutbeard Williamson, a small-to-middling planter, who promised Hellier that he would serve as the teacher to his children and not have to perform “laborious work” unless absolutely necessary. But there was one problem. Williamson and his wife did not have any children.

As soon as Hellier arrived at Hard Labour, the name of Williamson’s plantation, he was handed a hoe and sent out into the tobacco fields. Hellier tried to make the best of the situation, but he regularly received verbal abuse from Williamson’s wife,

who would not only rail, swear and curse at me within doors, whenever I came into the house, casting on me continually biting Taunts and bitter Flouts; but like a live Ghost would impertinently haunt me, when I was quiet in the Ground at work. And although I silently wrought as fast as she rail’d, plying my labour, without so much as muttering at her, or answering any thing good or bad; yet all the silence and observance that I could use, would not charm her vile tongue.

Unable to take such treatment any longer, Hellier ran away from the plantation and hid in a ship.

“I could not contain my self”

Thomas Hellier was born in 1650 in Dorsetshire, England. He attended school up until the age of 15 or 16, when he was bound as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon. During this time, his master’s son also taught Hellier how to be a stationer (i.e., a bookseller or someone involved in the book trade). Hellier gained his freedom after six years when his master died, and he soon afterward inherited 50 acres of land from his grandfather. He got married and had a daughter, and all would have gone well, except, as he later confessed, “I could not contain my self within the due bounds of Sobriety and Moderation.”

In 1673 or 74, Hellier cheated his father out of 12 pounds and without the knowledge of his family took the money to London with the aim of rising up in the world. He took out loans to set up a business as a barber-surgeon and stationer, but instead of tending to his business, he spent most of his time in taverns buying drinks for the high company he kept. Meanwhile, his debts continued to accumulate as he became “notoriously addicted to Cursing and Swearing” and “profaning the Sabbath.”

Hellier left London without ever paying his debts and went back to the country. But he continued his profligate ways, and in time local creditors claimed the cattle on his estate and then the estate itself. As a result, his wife and family all began to distance themselves from him. Fearing that he would end up in debtor’s prison, Hellier fled to London, where he signed on to become a surgeon on a ship with a German captain who possessed a French privateer commission. But before they could cast off, the captain was arrested and accused of being a pirate.

With no money for food, Hellier had no choice but to sell his clothes. Now at the end of his rope, he signed a contract to become an indentured servant in Virginia.

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After running away from the Hard Labour plantation, Hellier remained hidden for three weeks before Williamson discovered his whereabouts. As punishment, Hellier was subject to six weeks being added on to his term as a servant and to having his curly, dark brown hair cut close to his head to mark him as a former runaway.

Not surprisingly, Hellier’s mistress with “her odious and inveterate Tongue” treated him worse than before. All Hellier could do was think about escaping the “Hell upon Earth” that he was in. Running away did not work, so he came up with another plan.

In the early morning of May 24, 1678, Hellier put on his best clothes and got his ax. After mustering his courage two or three times, he rushed in to the bedroom of his master. In fright, the maid who regularly slept in the same room grabbed her bedroll and ran out. Hellier went straight for Williamson’s bed, raised the ax, and brought it down several times on what he presumed to be his master’s head.

Williamson’s wife jumped out of bed and grabbed a chair in an attempt to defend herself, but Hellier easily thrust it aside. She begged him to spare her life and said that he could take anything he wanted and leave the plantation. But the offer from his “greatest Enemy” did not satisfy him, “so down she went without Mercy.” When the maid heard her mistress in trouble, she returned to the room, and even though he initially had no plans to hurt her, she felt the blade of his ax as well. But unlike the other two, she survived the attack and ended up dying one or two days later.

Hellier broke open a closet, grabbed provisions, and loaded them onto a horse. With his master’s gun in hand, he headed off to enjoy the freedom from Hard Labour that he had so desired.

In the Woods

In working his way through the complicated woods and twisting waterways of the Virginia countryside, Hellier became lost. After wandering all day and night, he spotted a plantation where he knew one of the servants. He found the man and asked him the way to the James River. The servant pleaded ignorance, but said that he would go ask someone else. The master’s son shortly appeared and, most likely recognizing Hellier as a runaway by his short hair, asked him to come into the house for breakfast. Hellier declined the offer. The master’s son-in-law also showed up and asked Hellier to join the two in smoking some tobacco, which Hellier again turned down.

The two men finally agreed to show Hellier the way to the river and began walking with him, one in front and the other behind. They led Hellier to some water, and as they were passing through it, one of them seized the gun Hellier had been clutching and emptied it by firing a shot in the air. Hearing the blast, the master ran down, and the three men bound Hellier’s hands and took him to the Justice of the Peace.

Hellier was tried in Jamestown on July 26, 1678 and found guilty of the bloody crime. While Hellier waited in prison for his execution day, he recounted his life to a minister, who at Hellier’s request took the story back to England and published it. In the autobiography, Hellier refuted the belief by some that he had been transported to Virginia as a highwayman by maintaining that he never abused anyone on the English highways, except “one pittiful Beggar.” Hellier was traveling when he was approached by the beggar and figured that the poor-looking man had more money in his pocket than he did. He tricked the beggar into handing over some of his money and when the man demanded it back, Hellier justified keeping it by saying “I had little Money, and a great way to ride; but he could beg for more Money, I could not.”

At the Gallows

On August 5, 1678, like most convicts who were about to be executed in the 17th century, Hellier gave a speech to the crowd that gathered at the gallows. Hellier confessed his crime and asked God for forgiveness, but he also underhandedly took the opportunity to chastise Virginia planters.

Hellier admitted in his speech that he had been guilty of profaning the Sabbath, but he also wished aloud that such a practice were not as common as it was in Virginia, where masters regularly compelled servants to perform work on Sunday. He also confessed to committing the sins of cursing and swearing, but he pointed out that in Virginia he often heard children mimic their fathers and mothers in doing the same. Even more, he complained, masters regularly use such language against their servants: “They are not Dogs,” Hellier proclaimed, “who are professed Christians, and bear Gods Image; happily they are as good Christians as your selves, and as well bred and educated, though through Poverty they are forced to seek Christianity under thy roof; where they usually find nothing but Tyranny.”

After Hellier was executed, his body was hung in chains at Windmill Point on the James River as a warning to indentured servants not to defy their masters.

Sources

  • Breen, T. H., James H. Lewis, and Keith Schlesinger. “Motive for Murder: A Servant’s Life in Virginia, 1678.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third series, 40:1 (Jan. 1983), 106-120.
  • The Vain Prodigal Life, and Tragical Penitent DEATH of Thomas Hellier. London: Sam. Crouch, 1680. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online: ProQuest.

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