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Crime Poems: “Inhuman Cruelty”

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I find some of the crimes committed in colonial America to be too sad or too disturbing to report: our age by no means has a monopoly on shocking cruelty. The following crime could easily fit into this category, so I will let the poem that was sold in broadside form at the scene of the perpetrators’ punishment fill in the details of exactly what happened.

Here is the basic outline of events: On July 9, 1763, Ann Everton of Boston gave birth to a bastard female child, and a few months later she married John Richardson, a laborer who was presumably the father of the girl. After the couple married, they conspired to end the life of their infant daughter, but their attempts to murder her were eventually discovered. Somehow the child survived the ordeal.

John and Ann Richardson were tried and found guilty of contriving to kill and murder their baby through starvation. They were sentenced to stand at the gallows with nooses tied around their necks for one hour, and their punishment took place at Boston Neck on October 4, 1764, almost one year to the day after the two were married.

Because their daughter survived their murderous attempts on her life, the couple was spared from actually hanging from the ropes tied around their necks. But they did not escape harsh punishment. John Rowe, who attended the scene, reported in his diary, “the man behaved in the most audacious manner, so that the mob pelted him, which was what he deserved.”


Inhuman Cruelty:
Or Villany Detected.

Being a true Relation of the most unheard of, cruel and barberous [sic] Intended Murder of a Bastard Child belonging to JOHN and ANN RICHARDSON, of Boston, who confined it in a small Room, with scarce any Victuals, or Cloathing to cover it from the cold or rain, which beat into it, for which Crime they were both of them Sentenc’d to set on the Gallows, with a rope round their Necks, &c.

ADIEU to wanton jests, both false and vain,
To foolish fland’ring tales, and songs profane;
A mournful theme my heart and tongue employs,
Afflicts my mind and flattens all my joys.

I sing the cruel, miserable pair,
Th’ unhappy Man, and the accursed Fair,
Whose base and horrid fact torments my ears,
Distracts my soul, and drowns my eyes in tears.

Then on my muse, let all the vulgar know
The barb’rous cause from whence my sorrows flow
Proclaim the Wretch and his infernal Wife,
Whose wrestless malice sought her Infant’s life.

Who in a wet, a cold and loathsome room
Confin’d her Babe, the off-spring of her womb:
‘Twas there she made the half-starv’d Infant lay,
To sob alone and waste its flesh away.

Nor did the base and cruel Mother feel,
The least remorse—her breast was harden’d steel:
With looks serene, the Tigress could behold
Her panting Infant naked, wet and cold.

Thus she the helpless, tender Infant us’d,
She vex’d its spirits, and its body bruis’d;
And thus you see how John and bloody Ann,
The cruel Mother and unnatural Man.

Invented means to stop this Infants breath,
And sought to kill it by a ling’ring death;
But thanks to GOD, who sits inthron’d on high,
Supream o’er all, dread Sov’reign of the sky.

Who did his rich and wond’rous grace extend,
To save the Child from that untimely end;
How freely does his tender mercies flow,
To rescue Mortals from their depths of woe.

When sore distress’d he mitigates our pain,
Regards our tears, nor lets us cry in vain:
He hears our pray’rs, when we implore his grace,
And loves and pities, while he hides his face.

But as for those whom goodness can’t reclaim,
Who scorn his mercies, and blaspheme his name:
Those rebels soon shall feel his heavy rod,
And know the justice of an angry GOD.

So shall these Felons whose detected crime,
Has mark’d them out the scandal of our time:
This day the Man and his accomplish’d Dame
Are both expos’d to everlasting shame.

Behold him, Sirs, with his inviting Fair,
High on the gallows, see him seated there:
Behold how well the pliant halter suits
These hardn’d monsters, and unnatural brutes.

Behold, I pray, this Female’s brasen face,
Which gives the gallows that becoming grace;
See how she sets without concern or dread,
Bites in her lip, and rears her guilty head.

Behold, ye Swains, how great their guilt has been;
Then stand in awe, and be afraid to sin:—
Ye virgin Nymphs—ye few and virtuous Fair,
The earth’s great joy, and Heav’ns peculiar care.

Be content now, while in your youthful prime;
Abhor this Harlot, and avoid her crime:
Detest this Man, and ev’ry villains face,
Who dare be cruel, impudent or base.

And now that we may have our sins forgiven,
May live at ease, and die in peace with Heav’n;
Let us attend to wisdom’s sacred call,
Who thus concludes with an address to all.

Ye simple mortals, harken to my voice,
And take me now for your eternal choice;
Now let my sayings in your hearts descend,
Receive my law, and to my words attend.

Keep far from passion, cruelty and strife,
And I’ll conduct thee in the paths of life:
Exalt me now and I’ll prolong thy days,
I’ll save thy soul and prosper all thy ways.

Tho’ all forsake thee, I’ll be with thee still,
I’ll be thy guide and keep thee free from ill,
I’ll lead thee here and be thy kind convoy
Safe to the Haven of eternal joy.

Sources

Early American Criminals: “The Wicked Flee When None Pursue”

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The final chapter in the fall of John Ormsby began when he stabbed a man in the chest with a fork in Boston in 1734. In his Last SPEECH and Dying WORDS, Ormsby says that he was hanging around a friend’s shop when some of the boys who worked there persuaded him that a customer “designed to do me a Mischief.” Right after Ormsby grabbed a fork off a table and performed the preemptive act, he ran to the local prison, confessed to committing murder, and was put in a holding cell while the authorities launched a formal investigation.

Ormsby’s trip to prison turned out to be premature, because the fork hit the man’s ribs and did little damage. But, as Ormsby states, “the wicked flee when none pursue,” for while he was in the holding cell, Ormsby committed the crime that would bring him to the gallows.

Early Chapters

Ormsby was born a Protestant in the town of Enniskillen in northern Ireland. He was sent to Dublin to serve an apprenticeship with a barber, but he left his master before he finished out his time. From there, he “went rambling about the Country” and fell in with “bad Company,” but he eventually married and had two children. Without a solid profession, he ran into debt, so in desperation he accepted an offer from a ship captain for a free passage to Philadelphia. When they arrived in America, the captain got Ormsby drunk and tricked him into signing an indentured servant contract.

Under the terms of the contract, Ormsby worked for four years for another barber. He then traveled to Boston with designs to return home, which he was anxious to do since he was unable to say goodbye to his family when he left Ireland and none of his relations knew where he was. But he also wanted to bring money back with him to pay his debts, and when he discovered that he could make a comfortable living buying and selling hair, he ended up staying in Boston.

“With little or no Provocation”

Throughout this time, Ormsby had become a hard drinker, and when his “Intellectual Powers were somewhat impaired” by alcohol, he “committed many Irregularities, with little or no Provocation.” This propensity for violence came into play while he was held in prison during the investigation for stabbing the man with a fork. While Ormsby was settling an account with an acquaintance who had come to see him in prison, the two shared a quart of liquor from a pewter pot. After the man left, Ormsby got into an argument with the two prisoners who shared his cell. The argument heated up and in a rage Ormsby attacked Thomas Bell, who was sitting on the floor by a charcoal fire. Ormsby beat Bell on the head with the pewter pot until he was senseless and then turned to the other man to do the same until the prison keeper intervened and stopped the melee. Several days later, Bell died from the blows to his head.

At the trial for Bell’s murder, Ormsby’s lawyer argued that his client was not guilty by reason of insanity because under the effects of the alcohol he did not know what he was doing and afterwards had no memory of what took place. But the jury found that Ormsby’s behavior both before and after the murder showed that he was “not wholly destitute of the use of reason” and brought in a guilty verdict.

On the day before his execution, Ormsby wrote his Last SPEECH and Dying WORDS “with his own Hand.” In it, he says that he preferred to write out the account of his life and his warnings to impressionable youth “rather than take up my own or the Spectators Time at the Hour of my Death.”

An early map showing Boston Neck, which runs along present-day Washington Street.

Ormsby was executed on Boston Neck on October 17, 1734 next to Matthew Cushing, the celebrity burglar who had broken into the house of a shoemaker at night and stole a few articles of clothing. Cushing’s execution grabbed more of the public’s attention than Ormsby’s did, mostly because Cushing was executed for a crime that was perceived to be much less egregious than the vicious one carried out by Ormsby.

Sources

  • Ormsby, John. The Last Speech and Dying Words of John Ormsby. Boston: Thomas Fleet, 1734. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Rogers, Alan. Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Crime Poems: “That Notorious Cheat”

Crime Poems: “That Notorious Cheat”

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In June 1761, Jeremiah Dexter of Walpole, MA was caught trying to pass counterfeit dollars of his own making. As punishment, Dexter was forced on September 10 to stand in the pillory for one hour and pay a fine of 20 pounds. Among the crowd who showed up that day to ridicule Dexter was the eccentric Dr. Seth Hudson, a wealthy Dutchman who drew the attention of the city’s populace with his flamboyant crimson velvet outfits.

Hudson landed in Boston earlier in the year during his leisurely travels, and he quickly began to move within the inner circles of the Boston elite. But his travels, it turns out, were not entirely “for his own amusement.” In March, he began offering 100-pound treasury notes that guaranteed six percent returns to the wealthy client base he had been carefully cultivating.

When Hudson learned about Dexter’s counterfeiting scheme, he took great interest in it. Indeed, so great that John Boyle, a witness to the spectacle of Dexter’s punishment, noted that those in the crowd “were very liberal in bestowing rotten eggs upon Mr. Dexter, particularly Dr. Seth Hudson.” Hudson’s enthusiasm at the pillory was most likely motivated by his desire to protect his new business, since the detection of counterfeit bills could reduce public confidence in paper currency and adversely affect sales of his own treasury notes.

Hudson’s fears were well founded, because one month later the operations of yet another counterfeiter, Joshua Howe, were exposed. Howe confessed soon after he was apprehended that he did not act alone: he was “a partner in villainy with Doctor Hudson.”

On October 8, both Howe and Hudson were thrown in jail for counterfeiting.

A Liar and a Thief

It will come as no surprise that Seth Hudson was not born in Holland as he claimed, but rather in Marlborough, MA on April 13, 1728. His title of “Doctor” seems to have had some justification: he may or may not have received formal medical training, but he did begin a medical career in 1749 as a surgeon at Fort Massachusetts, where he later became a commanding officer.

In October 1757, Hudson was kicked out of the military after he was accused of being a liar and a thief, although the details of exactly what he did to bring about such charges are sketchy. He eventually landed in New Hampshire, where he probably met the experienced counterfeiter, Joshua Howe. There, the two of them hatched a scheme to print Massachusetts treasury notes in 100 pound increments and sell them to wealthy Bostonians.

Howe and Hudson created their fake 100 pound notes by first printing the bills using tools they acquired from the notorious New Hampshire counterfeiter, Glazier Wheeler. They then placed the fake note over a real one, traced the original signature with a sharp instrument so that an impression of it was transferred over to the fake one, and then filled in the impression with black ink. The second step of creating the signature was not nearly as successful as the first step of printing of the bills. The Boston Post-Boy reported that the printed notes were “every Way like the true Notes, save that the written Part is badly done.”

All together, Hudson sold 800 pounds worth of these fake notes. One of Hudson’s victims was the gullible Samuel Wells, a merchant and judge of the Court of Common Pleas, who back in 1749 was the target of a failed extortion scheme carried out by James Williams and Mary Richards.

Conviction and Punishment

While Hudson and Howe waited in prison for their trial, Howe was punished on February 2, 1762 for a previous counterfeiting conviction by being forced to stand in the pillory for one hour and be whipped 20 times. No doubt motivated by Howe’s description of his experience, Hudson tried to escape from prison two days later, but he was easily captured and returned to jail.

On Feburary 26, so many people showed up for the trial of Hudson and Howe that it had to be moved from the courthouse to the largest meetinghouse in Boston. The evidence presented against the two was so strong that the jury members did not even leave the room to deliberate. They found Hudson guilty of four counts of counterfeiting, and he was sentenced to one hour in the pillory, 20 lashes at the whipping post, and a 100-pound fine for each count. In addition, he received a 1-year prison term. They also found Howe guilty of two counts of counterfeiting, and he was handed the same set of penalties as Hudson, except that he was to receive 39 stripes at the whipping post.

The irony of Hudson’s behavior during Dexter’s punishment and the sensation of his own case were too rich for satirists and pamphleteers to pass up. At least two poetic broadsides of Hudson’s “speech” and “confession” were circulated during his several trips to the pillory, which probably was located on State Street in Boston.


____________________


The Humble Confession of that
NOTORIOUS CHEAT,
Doctor SETH HUDSON.
1762.

I Come, I come, the Villain cries,
With Terror sparkling in his Eyes;
While Fires from Hell his Soul inflame,
Distrest with Guilt–and stab’d with Shame.

Ye murder’d Hours so gaily flown,
These present Pangs are all your own.
My tortur’d Soul reflects with Pain,
On all the thoughtless, guilty Train.

Forgive, My Country, O forgive;
With deep Remorse I plead to live:
With Pity all my Crimes chastise,
And drink Repentance from these Eyes.

Hard’ned to Crimes–prone to rebell,
I dar’d assault the Gates of Hell:
No Vice my callous Heart declin’d;
No Ray of Grace illum’d my Mind.

Now all my Sins like Fiends arise,
And burning Tortures blast my Eyes:
Mercy from injur’d Heav’n implore,
Resolve by Grace to sin no more.

I come–submit to all my Shame,
Nor dare my injur’d Country blame:
Some Pity sure a Wretch may share,
Nor let me double Tortures bear.

Contempt I know is my Desert;
But O let Pity reach the Heart:
And let these transient Pangs atone;
Nor smile insulting while I groan.–

But ye whose Breasts are rib’d with Steel,
Whose marble Hearts disdain to feel,
Go lay our lurking Vices bare,
And judge with Rigour Follies there.–

And ye whose Souls relenting prove,
Those Twins of Virtue, Pity, Love;
May righteous Heav’n at length bestow
That Mercy, you to other’s show.

But O though Power of Grace divine,
Thy Mercy grant–for Mercy’s thine;
Tho’ Man condemn–do though forgive,
And let a Rebel Sinner live.

Pillory and Stocks


____________________


H-ds-n’s SPEECH from the Pillory.

What mean these Crouds, this Noise and Roar!
Did ye ne’er see a Rogue before?
Are Villains then a Sight so rare,
To make you press and gape and stare?
Come forward all who look so fine,
With Gain as illy got as mine:
Step up—you’l soon reverse the Show;
The Croud above, and few below.

Well—for my Roguery here I stand,
A Spectacle to all the Land:
High elevated on this Stage,
The greatest Villain of the Age.
My Crimes have been both great and many,
Equal’d by very few, if any:
And for the Mischief I have done
I put this wooden Neckcloth on.

There HOW his brawny Back is stripping,
Quite callous grown with often whipping.
In vain you wear your Whip-Cord out,
You’l ne’er reclaim that Rogue so stout.
To make him honest, take my Word,
You must apply a bigger Cord.

Now all ye who behold this Sight,
That ye may get some profit by’t,
Keep always in your Mind, I pray,
These few Words that I have to say.
Follow my Steps and you may be
In Time, perhaps, advanc’d like me;
Or, like my fellow Lab’rer How,
You’l get at least a Post below.

Apparently a “bigger Cord” was never found for Joshua Howe, because he never entirely gave up his counterfeiting career. In 1764 his name appeared in an escape advertisement for breaking out of the Cambridge jail. The notice describes Howe as “a stout fat Man,” who “wears a Cap, is very grey haired, has a short blue Jacket, a red Waistcoat, dirty Leather-Breeches, and light-worsted Stockings.” In 1768, the New-York Gazette reported that Howe was committed to jail once again for counterfeiting, this time in New Hampshire, and claimed that he was one of “a Clan of these Gentry of at least 500, who correspond thro’ all the Colonies, as far as North-Carolina.” Howe denied that he had counterfeited any money and said that he only rented out at 10 dollars per day certain tools that could presumably be used for such a purpose. He was later acquitted of the charges due to a lack of evidence.

As for Seth Hudson, he did not fully serve out his one-year prison sentence, because in July 1762 he was allowed to join the navy and was later released from service in December. He eventually moved to Albany, NY where in 1767 he died of smallpox. There was nothing fake about Hudson’s death, because while on his deathbed, he passed the virus on to one of his old associates, who also died of the disease.

Sources

  • “Boston.” Boston Evening-Post, September 14, 1761, issue 1359, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston.” Boston Evening-Post, June 28, 1762, issue 1399, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, April 11.” New-York Gazette, April 18, 1768, issue 859, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, March 15.” Boston Post-Boy, March 15, 1762, issue 239, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, July 15.” Boston News-Letter, July 15, 1762, issue 3029, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, June 11.” Boston News-Letter, June 11, 1761, issue 2971, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, October 12.” Boston Post-Boy, October 12, 1761, issue 217, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Boston Evening-Post, March 1, 1762, issue 1383, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Boston Evening-Post, September 14, 1767, issue 1668, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Boston Evening-Post, October 3, 1768, issue 1723, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Boston Post-Boy, May 7, 1764, issue 351, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Extract of Another Letter from London, Dated Nov. 19th.” Boston Evening-Post, February 8, 1762, issue 1380, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • H-ds-n’s Speech from the Pillory. Boston: N. Hurd, [1762]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • The Humble Confession of That Notorious Cheat. [Boston, 1762]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Scott, Kenneth. Counterfeiting in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.
  • Simons, D. Brenton. Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1775. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2005.

Crime Poems: “Cot-er’s Speech from the Pillory”

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In 1768, James Cotter was convicted of making and passing several counterfeit coins. On Friday, April 22, 1768 in front of a crowd in Boston, he “stood one Hour in the Pillory, and was whip’d 20 Stripes at the public Whipping post” as part of his punishment. The following “Speech” was published by an anonymous source to honor the occasion.


Cot-er’s Speech from the Pillory.

[Who was sentenced by the Superiour Court held at Boston, to set in the Pillory one Hour, be whip’d 20 Stripes, and pay Costs of prosecution, for counterfeiting Quarters of Dollars.]

I.

HEAVENS! what a num’rous Throng do here attend,
To see a Man the Pillory ascend;
Where unrivaled Merit is display’d
In all it’s [sic] Beauty to the World convey’d.

II.

Few, I believe, with equal right could claim
So good a Title to so great a Fame,
Or even think my Glory to excel,
In any Place, except the depths of Hell.

III.

Great is my Post, unenvy’d is my Pride,
I am singled out from all the World beside:
How great have Things conspir’d, or where or when,
To make me thus the happiest of Men?

IV.

Sure if this Honor be not justly due,
It would not be conferr’d by all of you;
Who do with Admiration view my Fate,
And gaze with wonder on my happy State.

V.

How every Person assembled here to-Day,
With anxious Hearts would gladly find a Way
To gain so noble, so glorious a Place,
And with themselves the Pillory to grace.

VI.

But vain their hopes, unless by me they’re taught,
How in the Net of Fortune to be caught:
Vain their desires, unless like me they strive
To tread such Steps, and by such Precepts thrive.

VII.

Pray Pupils let one Moment’s silence Reign,
And I’ll recount to you the various Train
Of previous Steps which all of you must take,
’Fore in this Joy you can participate.

VIII.

Lying is the first that I propose to mention,
Which ought to engross the whole of your attention,
As ’tis the only Rule and Ground of all,
On which your Grand Design must stand or fall.

IX.

Cheating the next, which often comes of Course,
Yet must be always learnt with equal force;
With equal Vigour ought to be pursu’d,
That so the next with ease may be subdu’d.

X.

Stealing, though ’tis a Virtue of the Age,
Yet is not always honor’d with a Stage;
Yet it is manifest upon Record,
It never fails to meet some great Reward.

XI.

But Coin your Cash yourselves, and then you’ll find,
You’ll have a Birth that’s suited to your mind:
Such a high Birth as I this Day enjoy,
Need all the Arts that you can well employ.

XII.

Yet still one loftier Place you can obtain,
(And hope ’twill be my lot e’r long to gain)
I mean the Gallows, that exalted State,
Where you’ll arrive at Fortune’s utmost Height.

Back in October 1767, a James Cotter along with John Clanse were pursued from Plymouth, MA on suspicion of stealing a silver can, a silver watch, and other articles from someone in town. Along the way, they stole two horses to aid their getaway. Clanse was captured in Newport, RI, where he acknowledged taking the goods, but he said that his partner, who managed to get away, was in possession of them. Cotter soon showed up, however, in Boston when he was put in jail after he stole some cloth “to make a Great-Coat.”

If this James Cotter was the same one who appeared on the pillory six months later, the petty counterfeiter portrayed in the poem may have been even more of a criminal mastermind than its author supposed.

Sources

  • “Boston, April 18.” Boston News-Letter, April 21, 1768, issue 3368, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, April 28.” Boston News-Letter, April 28, 1768, issue 3369, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Cot-er’s Speech from the Pillory. [Boston, 1768]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Early American Criminals: Joseph Quasson’s Repentance

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When Native American, Joseph Quasson, learned that he would spend eight or nine months in prison before he could face trial for murder, he secretly believed that he could properly repent in a quarter of the time. After all, he had once regularly attended church when he was young. But as the time for his inevitable execution drew near, he began to “Wonder that any graceless Soul should hope to do any thing, before Conversion, that might, in the least, recommend such an one [as him] to the Favour of God.”

Repentance, it turns out, was much more difficult than he first thought.

Servitude

Quasson was born on March 28, 1698 in what is now Chatham on Cape Cod. When he was six years old, his father died with five pounds of outstanding debt to Samuel Sturges of Yarmouth, which left his mother little choice but to bound Quasson to Sturges as a servant.

Sturges got his money’s worth, so to speak, because Quasson remained in his service for twelve years. While living with the Sturges family, Quasson learned to read, studied catechism, and attended church. His mistress instilled a fear of sin in him, so at the age of thirteen when he was put in charge of his master’s warehouse and some apprentices tried to talk him into stealing some gunpowder for them, he refused. But he encouraged them to perform the act themselves, which he later regretted.

Quasson received his freedom when he turned eighteen, and Sturges made sure that when Quasson left him he was dressed well, and he presented him with a new Bible as a going-away present. Quasson worked a little, but it was not long before he became idle, fell into bad company, and started drinking. He soon ran out of money, so he sold his clothes and his Bible to fuel his drunkenness. Due to his shabby appearance, he no longer could attend English church services, so instead he went to Indian meetings, where he could not understand the language.

"Death of Father Sebastian Rale" - A scene from Father Rale's War or Drummer's War.

Quasson volunteered to serve in the English militia to fight in Father Rale’s War (1722-1725)–otherwise known as Drummer’s War, the 4th Indian War, and several other names–which was the result of a border disagreement between France and England in what is now southern Maine. On August 28, 1725 during what was likely a drunken fight, Quasson shot in the upper thigh a fellow Native-American soldier, John Peter, who was also from Yarmouth. Quasson was immediately arrested and put in prison in York, ME. Three or four days later, Peter died, so Quasson faced murder charges for his impulsive act.

Because the two Native Americans were living in the white community, Quasson’s case fell under the jurisdiction of the English courts. But the Superior Court, which was to try Quasson, was not scheduled to meet until May, so Quasson had plenty of time to repent for his crime.

”Heart-work is hard work”

While in prison, Quasson discovered that “Heart-work, is hard work.” He later said that when he entered prison, he believed that “being a poor Indian and in a strange Place, especially in a Time of War; People would be little concerned about me.” But he sent for the minister in town, who began the work of attending to Quasson’s soul. For two months Quasson read the Scriptures and attended services to the point where he felt “mightily affected” and his “Heart seemed to relent.” At other times, however, his “Heart seemed hard and senseless.”

Despite his efforts, Quasson’s progress returned to square one when in February another prisoner joined him in his cell. When his cellmate was not singing, he was “full of vain or profane Talk,” and under his influence, Quasson lost his desire to pray and stopped attending church.

After the prisoner left, Quasson returned to his daily struggle. People from the town regularly visited him and brought him religious books, which he read several times over. He was particularly affected by the story of Esther Rogers and her conversion after she committed repeated murders.

Yet Quasson continued to struggle with the idea of God forgiving someone who had committed such a horrible crime as he had. When Rev. Samuel Moody visited Quasson a few days before his execution to record his story, the prisoner responded, “To tell the World . . . what a stupid hardned [sic] Creature I have been! What will they say? There’s a wicked Wretch gone to Hell!” But when Moody explained that giving an account of his life for publication would serve “the Glory of God and good of Souls” and could help his cause with God, Quasson relented.

“A very remarkable Alteration”

Quasson’s guilt was never in doubt, and he did nothing to contest his conviction. But the question of the state of his soul remained. Finally, after he attended his last Sabbath meeting before his execution, “a very remarkable Alteration was observed in him.” As Quasson prayed, Moody reported, he now “seemed much more affected, and even melted,” This time, his repentance appeared to stick.

Quasson was accompanied by most of the ministers of the county during his mile-long walk to the gallows, which was erected in a valley so that the three thousand spectators could easily see the proceedings while standing on the sides of the surrounding hills. After he climbed the ladder of the scaffold, Quasson turned to the people and shouted,

I would have you all take Warning by me, I am come here to die a shameful Death; and I acknowledge the Justice of God in it, ‘tis Drunkenness that has brought me to it. I would have you all to leave off your Drunkenness; for if you don’t leave it off, it will certainly bring you to some dreadful End.

No one was able to write down the prayer that Quasson recited after this short speech, but Moody assures us that “he prayed so freely, so distinctly, & so pertinently, that it was to the Admiration of the Wisest and Best.”

Moody used the conversion story of Esther Rogers as inspiration in writing up his account of Quasson, but he saw in Quasson an opportunity to take the lesson one step further: namely, to demonstrate that if even someone as low as “a poor Indian and Malefactor” can repent and save his soul, then so can we all.

When Samuel Moody’s Account of the Indian Executed at York, June 29, 1726 appeared, it was the first criminal conversion narrative that was published as a separate work. Until that point, conversion narratives were normally included at the end of a published sermon that was given by a minister on the occasion of the criminal’s execution. Moody’s work marks the beginning of a publishing trend where the life of the criminal, rather than the words of the ministers, began to command the attention of the reading public.

Sources

Crime Poems: Philip Kennison’s Prison Writings

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When Thomas Fleet, publisher of the Boston Evening-Post learned in 1738 that Philip Kennison was going to be executed in Cambridge, MA for burglary, he sensed a business opportunity.

While Kennison waited in prison for his sentence to be carried out, he spent a good deal of time writing “a Narrative of his Wicked Life,” a letter to his oldest sister, and “a Verse suitable to the mournful Occasion.” Surely, the public would be interested in reading what this burglar (or at least someone pretending to be him) had written! So in the September 11th edition of his newspaper, Fleet promised to publish Kennison’s works and make them available on September 15, the day of his execution.

When that day finally arrived, Kennison listened to Rev. William Williams of Weston, MA deliver a sermon, which Fleet also published one month later. Kennison did not say much during the ceremony except for a short prayer, but the prolific writer handed the sheriff a paper he had written and asked him to read it out loud to the crowd. The New England Weekly Journal later published it, and it basically announces Kennison’s acceptance of God’s word and his hope that Jesus Christ will offer him salvation in Heaven.

Boston Evening-Post - September 18, 1738 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Fleet used all manner of cross-promotion in an attempt to capitalize on Kennison’s prison writings. One week after announcing his intention to publish them in his newspaper, he ran an advertisement that they were now available for purchase at the Heart and Crown in the Cornhill section of Boston (where City Hall Plaza now stands). In addition, after giving place-of-publication information at the bottom of Kennison’s published verses and on the title page of William’s published sermon, Fleet inserted a short announcement that the “Narrative of Kennison’s Life, written by himself” was also available for purchase.

But despite Fleet’s efforts, we know little about Philip Kennison–except that he supposedly liked to put pen to paper and that he was 28 years old when he was executed–because no known copies of “A Short and plain, but faithful Narrative of the wicked Life of Philip Kennison” survive today.


The
Dying LAMENTATION and ADVICE
OF
Philip Kennison,

Who was Executed at Cambridge in New-England (for Burglary) on Friday the 15th
Day of September, 1738, in the 28th Year of his Age.

All written with his own Hand, a few Days before his Death:

And published at his earnest Desire, for the good of Survivors.

Good People all both great & small,
to whom these Lines shall come,
A warning take by my sad Fall,
and unto God return.

You see me here in Iron Chains,
in Prison now confin’d,
Within twelve Days my Life must end,
my breath I must resign.

For Sin hath so inclosed me
and compass’d me about,
That I am now remediless,
if Mercy help not out.

O let me then this Caution give
to every one of you,
Especially to you that live
in Sin and spend your Youth.

To seek the Lord with one accord,
now while you have the Light,
Lest you be left, and then you’l fall
in darksom gloomy Night.

O then the Judgments of the Lord
will on you fast abide;
And then your Pleasures all will flee,
and all your Friends likewise.

For this I see apparently,
and by Experience know,
For now my Friends do from me flee
and laugh to see my Wo.

None of my Friends have I to see,
nor none to comfort me;
For I am left of God to see
my doleful Misery.

Now I must go my Doom to hear,
my Wages to receive;
O how shall I endure to hear?
O it doth make me grive [sic].

For when my Sins are judg’d and try’d,
the Heavens will record
That God is just, all must abide
the Judgment of the Lord.

He doth prepare his mortal Dart,
his arrows keen and sharp;
For them that do him persecute,
and do at Mischief laugh.

He doth rebuke the Heathen kind,
and wicked to confound;
That afterwards the Memory
of them cannot be found.

Thus I am made a Laughing Stock,
to all that’s round about;
My Enemies do at me mock,
they clap their Hands and shout.

O let me be a Warning then
to every one of you;
That see me here confin’d in Chains,
lest you with me should rue.

Alas I am as brought to Grave,
and almost turn’d to Dust;
My Portion here you see I have
with lude Men and unjust.

Fear and the Snare is come on me,
waste and Destruction;
Because that I refus’d to hear
the Lord’s instruction.

My Heart doth pant for want of Breath
it panteth in my Breast;
With Terror, and the dread of Death
my Soul is much opprest.

Such dreadful Fears on me do fall,
that I therewith do quake;
Such Sorrow overwhelmeth me,
that I no Sh[ift?] can make.

My wicked Life so far excels,
that I shall [___?] therein;
But Lord forgive my great misdeeds,
and purge [them?] from my Sin.

So come I to the Throne of Grace,
where Mercy doth abounds
Desiring Mercy for my Sins,
to heal my deadly Wounds.

____________________________

Cautions and Warnings

MY dearest Friends, before I die,
these Verses I have made;
Commit them, to your Memory,
mind them when I am dead.

First unto God, do bequeath
my wicked sinful Soul,
To be with Christ in final Rest,
where nothing can controul[?].

Next unto you these Lines I write
to caution you to fear
The Lord of Heaven and of Might,
and love your Saviour dear.

O that my Eyes with Tears of blood
as Waters down might flow;
So that my Writing might do good,
which to the World I show.

O that you would this Warning take
by my unhappy Fall;
So as that you may then escape
the endless burning Thraul.

Do not your self with that content,
nor any such ill kind;
To say at last if I repent
then Mercy I shall find.

That is a very foolish Thing,
for you for to believe;
The Devil doth but tempt to Sin,
at last he’l you deceive.

That is his whole Employment then,
in Scripture you may see;
For to deceive the Sons of Men,
and that we often see.

If he be such an one as that,
great Care we ought to take,
Lest we fall in an evil Net,
and cry when it’s too late.

Remember Esau how he cry’d,
when it was all too late;
And for the Blessing he did cry,
and earnestly did seek.

But all in vain, it was too late,
his Time and Glass was run;
Although he sought with Tears at last,
but it could not be found.

Remember well the wicked Jews
in Blindness they do live;
Because they did their King refuse,
and did not him believe.

[So be not like those forsaken Jews?]
to sleep your Time away;
Who did our Saviour Christ refuse,
and fell into decay.

Fear yet the Lord, obey the King,
live quietly together;
And strive for to be born again,
that you may live for ever.

Fear to offend Almighty God,
keep his Commandements;
Or he will [smite with?] his sore Rod,
if you do not repent.

Let Heaven be your chiefest Care,
mind not this Earthly Mould;
But always strive to get a Share
in your Redeemer’s Fold.

For when you die, you will receive
most joyfully that Word,
Enter thou in into my Rest,
there will you see the Lord.

[But if?] that you will [not?] obey
the Call of God [_d __n?],
He’l you cut off in midst of Days,
your glass will soon be run.

Whilst Fools do haste their Time to waste
spending in Sport the Day;
Whilst that they just let thy Heart rest
in seeking Wisdom’s Way.

Remember Death and Judgment too,
mark what I here do say;
Remember what I say [to you?]
think on the Judgment Day.

My Friends adieu,
PHILLIP KENNISON

Sources

  • “Boston.” New-England Weekly Journal, September 19, 1738, issue 596, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Extract of a Letter from Ferry Land in Newfoundland Aug. 23th.” Boston Evening-Post, September 11, 1738, issue 161, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Just Published.” Boston Evening-Post, September 18, 1738, issue 162, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Kennison, Philip. The Dying Lamentation and Advice of Philip Kennison. Boston: [Thomas Fleet], 1738.
  • “Thursday Next Will Be Published.” Boston Evening-Post, October 9, 1728, issue 165. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Williams, William. The Serious Consideration. Boston: Thomas Fleet, 1738. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Early American Criminals: The Conversion of Esther Rodgers

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The night before the special event, Esther Rodgers exclaimed to the group of people who had gathered in her cell, “Oh! I have had the joyfullest day to day that ever I had in my whole life. I bless God that ever I came into this Prison.”

Rodgers’s exclamation is remarkable. She had little exposure to religion growing up and had never given it much thought. She had had a long stay in prison–more than eight months–and when her confinement first commenced, she barely talked to the ministers or to the other Christian townspeople who regularly visited her, giving them no more than yes or no answers to the questions they posed. But one minister records that over time, “She felt the power of the Word preached, inlightning, convincing, humbling and softening of her heart,” and she began to read and collect passages from the Scriptures.

Rodgers’s comment is remarkable in other ways. Not only is it an expression of her conversion to an evangelical Christianity, but it also implies that had she not committed the crimes that she did, she may never have come to accept God’s word. Her potential salvation after death, in other words, would ultimately come on the backs of her victims. Can Divine Grace truly be handed out when her past actions against those victims are at least partially justified as a means to her personal salvation?

And finally, Rodgers’s remark is significant in that it is a window into her mental state on the night before the special event, i.e., her execution.

The Crimes

Esther Rodgers was born in Kittery, ME sometime in May 1680. In her “Declaration and Confession,” she mentions nothing about her parents or her early childhood and skips ahead to the age of thirteen, when she became an apprentice to Joseph Woodbridge of Newbury, MA. Even though the Woodbridge family exposed Rodgers to religion and taught her to read, she infrequently observed the Sabbath and never paid much attention to the sermons when she did attend church.

At the age of seventeen while still living with the Woodbridges, Rodgers “was left to fall into that foul Sin of Uncleanness, suffering my self to be defiled by a Negro Lad living in the same House.” She became pregnant. Fearful of the public shame that it would bring her, she hid the pregnancy, resolved to murder the child if it were born alive, and continued her relations with the boy.

When the time came, she delivered a living child, so she “stop[ped] the breath of it,” hid the body in her room, and in the dark of night the following day buried it in the garden. No one ever knew or suspected what had happened, including the father of the child.

Six months later, Rodgers left Newbury and moved into a public tavern in Piscataqua, NH, where she gave herself “up to other wicked Company and ways of Evil.” One year later she returned to the Woodbridge family, but the memories of what she did there forced her to move to another part of town, where, as she says, “I took all Opportunities to follow my old Trade of running out a Nights, or entertaining Sinful Companions in a back part of the House.”

Once again, Rodgers became pregnant by an African-American who lived in the same house as she did. Just like last time, she attempted to hide her pregnancy, but when the time came to deliver the child, she left the house and went out into a field. Rodgers claims that she was not sure whether the infant was born alive or dead, but either way, she took the child to the side of a pond, covered its body with dirt and snow, and returned home.

Some people suspected that Rodgers had left the house to deliver a baby and confronted her, but she avoided answering their questions. The next day some neighbors discovered the body of her dead infant, and when it was placed in front of Rodgers, she had no choice but to confess to the crime.

Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the trial of Esther Rodgers.

Rodgers was held in Newbury for about one month before being transferred to the Ipswich prison where she went through her spiritual conversion. At her trial, she was found guilty of murder and condemned to die. One of the judges, Samuel Sewall, wrote in his diary that after Rodgers received her sentence, “She hardly said a word. I told her God had put two children for her to nurse: Her mother did not serve her so. Esther [of the Bible] was a great saviour; she a great destroyer. Said did not do this to insult over her, but to make her sensible.”

The Spectacle

On July 31, 1701, the High Sheriff prepared a cart to carry Rodgers to the place of execution, but she requested to walk on foot, and a few ministers joined her to talk spiritual matters as she went along. After about a mile, her pace began to falter under the weight of what she faced, but she recovered and gained strength when the gallows came into sight. As she reached the base of the scaffold, she turned to thank the ministers and then climbed up the ladder “without stop or trembling.”

When Rodgers reached the top, this formerly reserved woman addressed the estimated crowd of four or five thousand people by shouting out her last dying words, which concluded:

O my dear Friends–Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity–If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

Rodgers recited a prayer, and with her eyes and hands lifted toward heaven, the officer bound her face with a handkerchief. After he placed the halter around her neck, she cried out, “O Lord Jesus, Now Lord Jesus, I am a Coming: O Come Lord Jesus by Thy Pardoning Mercy, to Save me Now, or I Perish for ever. My Blessed Jesus,–O Lord Jesus, have Pity upon me, O Good Lord.”

When she finished speaking, one of the ministers assured her, “We have Recommended you to God, and done all we can for you, and must now leave you.–If your Hopes can lay hold upon the irresistible Grace and Mercy of God in Christ, and you can cast your self into His Armes, you are Happy for Ever.–And so we must bid you Fare-Well.”

The Question

Whether or not Rodgers’s conversion was sincere, the entire spectacle–including the published account of her life, dying words, and interactions with the clergy–was carefully choreographed. At least seven ministers took credit for the spiritual conversion of Rodgers, and by their account, Rodgers played the role of the Christian convert that they had written for her perfectly.

But the question posed at the beginning of this narrative remains: can Divine Grace truly be handed out when the circumstances of the conversion came at the expense of two “poor murdered Infants” and when their mother’s actions possibly resulted in “sending them to Hell”? The ministers certainly thought so, since their intent in publishing the story of Esther Rodgers and her conversion was to show how even the most miserable sinner can be saved by the Christian God.

When one of the visitors to Rodgers’s cell the night before her execution confronted her with just this question, she answered, “I have greatly mourned for my cruelty and wrong to [the infants], as well as Sin against God in all that I have done.” When a visitor continued to press Rodgers by asking, “But how do you think to answer the Cry of their Blood?,” she responded, “I trust I have an Advocate, and many like things.”

Sources

Crime Poems: Richard Wilson’s Burglary

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Late Sunday night on August 14, 2011, four burglars entered a Big Ed’s Restaurant in South Brunswick, NJ. Their cars parked outside the restaurant drew the attention of the police, and when the officers arrived they discovered an open door that led to the basement of the building. When they started to investigate, three of the burglars attempted to run away. Two of the men were captured, including a man named Richard Wilson, but one of them remained at large.

After the police secured the two suspects, they returned to the restaurant to survey the area. They found a considerable amount of copper piping that the burglars had cut out from the building and had piled up in preparation to load into their vehicles. As the officers continued to investigate the scene, they began to hear loud snoring noises coming from the top of a large refrigeration unit. When they looked up, they discovered another burglar from the group, who had fallen asleep after he went into hiding when the police first arrived.

(You can read the full story and see a picture of Richard Wilson and the other two suspects on the television affiliate website, New York NBC: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Snoring-Burglar-Tips-Off-Cops-127754393.html)

Almost three hundred years before Richard Wilson and his snoring companion broke into the Big Ed’s Restaurant, another Richard Wilson was caught committing burglary in Boston. While news of Richard Wilson’s burglary in New Jersey was reported on many websites–and his story may have even been broadcast on local television stations–only a few newspapers carried brief reports about the burglary committed by Boston’s Richard Wilson.

From these accounts, all that we know about the earlier Wilson and his burglary is that he was Irish and that he tried to steal “sundry Goods from Abiel Walley, Esq.” sometime in or around August, 1732. The Superiour Court sentenced him to death for his crime that month, and he was executed at Boston Neck on October 19, 1732.

The American Weekly Mercury reported that Wilson behaved penitently at the gallows. Before his execution, Wilson also confessed his guilt, and “advis’d the Spectators to take Warning by his untimely Death, and particularly cautioned against evil Company, and the Sins of prophane Swearing and Drunkenness, which had led him on to commit the Sin for which he was to die.” And finally, he “beg’d his Wife and Children might not be abus’d, for they were innocent.”

But along with these few reports, news of Wilson’s burglary and subsequent execution also appeared in one more media source: a poem in broadside form that was “Printed and Sold at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill” (a location that is now occupied by City Hall Plaza in Boston). The poem does not fill in much more of the details of Richard Wilson’s burglary, but at the time it did help to disseminate news of his crime and punishment.

Detail from "The Wages of Sin" (American Memory, Library of Congress)


The Wages of Sin;
OR,
Robbery justly Rewarded:
A
POEM;
Occasioned by the untimely Death of
Richard Wilson,
Who was Executed on Boston Neck, for Burglary,
On Thursday the 19th of October, 1732.

THis Day from Goal must Wilson be
conveyed in a Cart,
By Guards unto the Gallows-Tree,
to die as his Desert.

For being wicked overmuch,
there for a wicked Crime,
Must take his fatal Lot with such
as die before their Time.

No human Pardon he can get,
by Intercession made;
But flee he must unto the Pit,
and by no Man be stay’d.

The fatal sad and woful Case,
this awful Sight reveals,
Of one whom Vengeance in his Chase
hath taken by the Heels.

Here is a Caution in the Sight,
to wicked Thieves, and they
Who break and rob the House by Night,
which they have mark’d by Day.

We see the Fall of one that cast
his Lot in by Decree,
With those that wait the Twilight past,
that so no Eye may see.

That wicked Action which he thought
by Night would be conceal’d,
By Providence is strangely brought
thus far to be reveal’d.

By which we see apparantly,
there is no Places sure,
Where Workers of Iniquity
can hide themselves secure.

There is no Man by human Wit,
can keep his Sin conceal’d
When he that made him thinks it fit
the same should be reveal’d.

He that gets Wealth in wicked Ways,
and slights the Righteous Rule,
Doth leave them here amidst his Days,
and dies at last a Fool.

Here we may see what Men for Stealth
and Robbing must endure;
And what the Gain of ill got Wealth
will in the End procure.

Here is a Caution high and low,
for Warning here you have,
From one whose Feet are now brought to
the Borders of the Grave.

He does bewail his mis-spent Life,
and for his Sins doth grieve,
Which is an hopeful Sign that he
a Pardon will receive.

He says, since he forsook his God,
God has forsaken him,
And left him to this wicked Crime,
that has his Ruine been.

He calls his Drunkenness a Sin,
with his neglect of Prayer,
The leading Crimes have brought him in
to this untimely Snare.

All you that practice cursed Theft,
take Warning great and small,
Lest you go on, and so are left
to such untimely fall.

Repent of all your Errors past,
and eye the Stroke of Fate,
Lest you thus come to Shame at last,
and mourn when ’tis too late.

Remember what the Scripture saith,
a little honest Wealth,
Is better far than mighty Store
of Riches got by Stealth.

This Warning soundeth in our Ear,
this Sentence loud and Shrill,
O Congregation, hear and fear,
and do no more so ill
.

FINIS.

"The Wages of Sin" (American Memory, Library of Congress)

Sources

American Weekly Mercury, Thursday, November 2, 1732, issue 670, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Boston, Aug. 21.” Weekly Rehearsal, August 21, 1732, issue 48, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Boston, Aug. 31.” Boston News-Letter, Thursday, August 31, 1732, issue 1492, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

“Snoring Burglar Tips Off Cops to Hiding Spot.” Website: NBC New York (http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Snoring-Burglar-Tips-Off-Cops-127754393.html). Accessed on March 26, 2012.

The Wages of Sin; Or, Robbery Justly Rewarded: A Poem; Occasioned by the Untimely Death of Richard Wilson. Boston: Printed and Sold at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, [1732]. Database: American Memory, Library of Congress: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/rbpe.03402200.

Early American Criminals: Elizabeth Wilson’s Secret

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Near the beginning of the year in 1785, a traveler paused while walking through the countryside near Chester, PA to watch as his dog began to sniff and scratch among some brush. The man’s curiosity soon turned to horror when his faithful companion emerged from its feverish digging with the separated head of an infant in its mouth. The man rushed to the spot and uncovered the bodies of twin infants who had been killed and buried there not too long ago.

The murderer of the infants was obvious. Elizabeth Wilson had recently given birth to twins out of wedlock, and eight weeks before the grisly discovery she had left for Philadelphia with the two babies in her arms. The Independent Gazeteer of Philadelphia additionally reported that Wilson had been seen nursing the children at that same spot back around the time when the murders took place.

Wilson was arrested and was eventually brought to trial on October 17, where she was easily found guilty and received a sentence of death. But throughout all of this time, Wilson maintained her innocence in the murders.

“The subtilty of Satan”

Wilson was born in East Marlborough, PA in Chester County to “honest, sober parents.” She lived a religious life up until the age of 21, when “thro’ the subtilty of Satan and corruptions of nature was led away to the soul-destroying sin of fornication.” The power of Satan must have been strong, because under his influence she had three unlawful children.

At some point around 1784, Wilson left her hometown and secured a room in Philadelphia at the corner of Chestnut and Third Street. When she met Joseph Deshong that same year, she believed she had finally found her man, and Deshong’s single status and his repeated promises to marry her made her comfortable enough to “consent to his unlawful embraces.”

Wilson became pregnant. When she presented her situation to Deshong, his talk of marriage suddenly ended. He insisted that Wilson stay in town and assured her that he would take care of all her expenses. Wilson moved to a room on Union Street and provided for herself over the next several weeks, because Deshong never once showed up to visit her. As the time of the birth drew near, Wilson became desperate for money. She searched all over Philadelphia for Deshong only to realize that he had completely abandoned her.

No longer able to support herself in Philadelphia, Wilson moved back to Chester County, rented a room, and delivered twins.

The Secret

Even though Wilson maintained her innocence in the murders of the infants, she kept the story of what really happened a secret throughout her trial. As she waited in prison for her execution, she asked her younger brother to visit her. When he arrived, she attempted to tell him the real story of what had happened in the woods, but he refused to hear her confession until he could gather some other witnesses. Once Wilson’s brother and the people he gathered heard his sister’s story, he rushed to Philadelphia to appear before the Supreme Executive Council and plead her case.

While her brother was in Philadelphia, Wilson met with two Baptist ministers at ten o’clock in the evening on December 6, 1785 to prepare for her execution the following day. In their presence, she repeated what she told her brother.

Joseph Deshong, not surprisingly, was not who he said he was. In fact, later investigation showed that the name he used was not even his proper name. Wilson told the ministers that after she delivered her twins in Chester County, she went to Philadelphia to track down her “deceiver.” When she found him and informed him that she had delivered twins, he exclaimed, “the Devil! you have?” Wilson threatened to seek legal recourse if Deshong did not help her. But he said that there was no need to bring in the Law and agreed with Wilson’s plan to give up one of the infants and keep the other on condition that Deshong would provide the two with financial support.

Deshong gave Wilson enough money to cover her travel expenses back to Chester County and asked her to return to Philadelphia with the twins on an appointed day so that he could fulfill his promise to her. When that day arrived, Wilson unexpectedly met Deshong a couple miles down the road from where she was living. He asked her to follow him into the woods, which she did, and she sat down on a rotten log with her two children in her arms.

Deshong took hold of one of the infants “to see if it look’d like him.” He asked Wilson what she planned to do with the children, and she repeated their previous agreement to give one away and keep the other with his financial support. Deshong placed the child in his hands on the ground. He took the other from Wilson’s arms, placed it next to its sibling, and declared, “I have no money for you, nor your bastards neither.” He then ordered Wilson to kill the infants.

Wilson begged Deshong to allow her to take the babies away with her, but he pulled out a pistol and told her to be silent. He then “wickedly stamped on their dear little breasts, upon which the dear infants gave a faint scream and expir’d.” Continuing to point the gun at Wilson, he forced her to vow never to reveal what had just happened. He carved out a hole in the ground with his feet, placed the bodies of the children in it, covered them up with leaves and some brush, and took Wilson to Philadelphia.

Respite

The ministers were dumbfounded upon hearing Wilson’s confession. They hastily prepared to make the trip to Philadelphia to present what they just heard to the Council, even though the hour had just turned past two o’clock in the morning. But when they learned that Wilson’s brother would be returning from a similar mission in the morning, they thought it best to wait for him to appear.

The ministers wrote up the story that Wilson told them, and an hour later Wilson’s brother arrived armed with a respite that delayed Wilson’s execution until January 3rd.

The month went by quickly, and once again Wilson faced execution. When she heard that no respite had arrived to save her this time, she took the news with composure. But upon learning that her brother had once again traveled to Philadelphia on her behalf, she expressed concern for his aching heart and fell into a fit.

At the place of execution, Wilson requested that the sheriff read her confession to the crowd, and she afterward confirmed its veracity as a dying woman. Her brother had yet to arrive from Philadelphia to witness her end, so the authorities dragged out the ceremonies as long as they could. Finally, they could wait no longer. The sheriff asked Wilson once more about the truth of her confession, and through the hood that covered her face she said, “I do, for it is the truth.” And with these final words, Wilson’s life ended at the age of 27.

Scene of Elizabeth Wilson's execution, from "The Pennsylvania Hermit" ca. 1838. Note the arrival of Wilson's brother in the background.

Twenty-three minutes after Wilson was executed, her brother arrived on the scene in haste from Philadelphia. His trip met with “unexpected and unavoidable hindrances on the road,” and when he saw his sister dangling from her neck, he “beheld her motionless, and sunk in death.” In his possession was another letter and reprise from the Honorable President and the Council to delay his sister’s execution.

The brother took Wilson’s body home, and some vain efforts were made to restore her to life. A large crowd of people showed up to pay their respects when she was buried honorably the next day.

Legend has it that after the traumatic execution, Wilson’s brother withdrew from society. He lived in a cave for the rest of his life and became known as the “Pennsylvania Hermit.”

Sources

  • “1786: Elizabeth Wilson, Her Reprieve Too Late.” ExecutedToday.com, January 3, 2011 (http://www.executedtoday.com/2011/01/03/1786-elizabeth-wilson-her-reprieve-too-late/”).
  • A Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson. Hudson, NY: Ashbel Stoddard, 1786. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “A Letter from Charleston, of December 14.” Independent Gazetteer, January 8, 1785, issue 167, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “On Monday the 9th Instant.” Independent Gazetteer, January 14, 1786, vol. V, issue 220, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Philadelphia, March 15.” Providence Gazette, April 1, 1786, vol. XXIII, issue 1161, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1993.

Crime Poems: Elizabeth Smith and John Sennet

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On March 10, 1772, Elizabeth Smith appeared before the Massachusetts Superior Court and for a second time was found guilty of theft. Her first conviction came almost a year ago, when she received 20 lashes as punishment for the same crime. This time, Smith was sentenced to sit on the gallows for one hour with a halter around her neck and to be whipped 20 times once again. Her conviction would have been unremarkable had it not been for another criminal, John Sennet, who received a similar sentence during that same court session.

Sennet was found guilty of bestiality for attempting to perform sodomy with a mare. The Boston Gazette reported that he committed the “Unnatural crime” on Saturday, August 31, 1771 on the “Boston Common in the Face of the Sun, in it’s Meridian Lustre, and in the sight of several People.” Not surprisingly, Sennet was reported as being drunk at the time. The newspaper article went on to say that he had a wife and children.

Boston Common - 1768 (NYPL Digital Gallery)

Sennet was sentenced to stand next to Smith at the gallows with a halter around his neck and to receive 39 lashes. But his sentence was mild when compared to the one handed down to the mare, who was immediately put to death by its owner after the event took place.

Smith’s and Sennet’s sentences were carried out on Wednesday, May 13, 1772, and the Boston News-Letter reported that the two were “severely pelted by the Populace.” Their punishment was clearly an attempt to shame them and to hold their example up as a warning to others. But at least one person in the crowd did not get the message.

John Bryan, who also went by the name John Baker, meandered in front of the gallows while the spectacle was taking place selling handkerchiefs. People soon suspected that the goods he was peddling were stolen, because only the day before, Bryan was let out of jail after receiving a whipping for theft. When the authorities closed in on Bryan to arrest him, he pretended to faint. But the tactic did nothing to help his cause, because he was simply placed on a board and carried off to jail on the shoulders of several men.

After Smith and Sennet served their hour on the gallows and received their whippings, Smith, who lacked the funds to compensate the owners for the goods she had stolen, was sold into servitude.

One enterprising author and publisher took advantage of the attention generated by the mock hangings and printed in poetic form a dialogue between Smith and Sennet as they stood at the gallows. Judging by its content, the broadside was probably available for sale at the event, along with Bryan’s stolen handkerchiefs.

A DIALOGUE
BETWEEN
ELIZABETH SMITH, and JOHN SENNET,

Who were convicted before his Majesty’s Superior Court, Elizabeth Smith for Thievery, and John Sennet for Beastiality! and each sentenced to Set upon the Gallows for the space of one Hour, with a Rope round their Necks Elizabeth Smith to receive Twenty Stripes upon her naked Back, And John Sennet, Thirty-nine.

Smith. SEE here the knave expos’d to publick view,
And for his wickedness receives his due:
While all the crowd behold him with disdain,
And laugh to see him thus expos’d to shame.

Sennet. No doubt you thought your crimes would lie
Forgot and hidden from the partial eye;
But now you know that “Ropes and Lines can see
Crimes of a small, though not a large degree.

Sennet. Though Murd’rers pass with crimes of deeper hue,
Thieves and house-breakers always have their due.
Cushing* has eas’d the former from their fate,
But vengeance always does on Villains wait.

Smith. You know your fault is far more base than mine,
The most unnatural of any crime;
A deed of Beastiality you know
Is what exposes you to publick show.

The laws divine and human you have broke,
And took upon yourself a heavy yoke:
For know, O man! The Lord your maker faith,
He that lies with a Beast shall suffer death.

Sennet. O dare you lift your head to sensure me,
You know your crime is of the first degree;
Convicted twice of theft, you have your due,
If all the croud spare me to punish you.

A thief, the most detested of mankind,
How can you e’er a moment’s comfort find?
Your guilt will follow you where e’er you go,
And turn your joy into most deadly woe.

Smith. You know, O Sennet, you deserve to die,
According to the laws of God most high:
You have expos’d your wife and children dear,
To sorrow, to disgrace, and black despair.

Sennet. You cease your talk, think on one scene that’s past,
Behold your husband struggle out his last!
Frail wicked breath, when drove unto despair,
The Gallows eased him of all his care.

Both as one. Now both of us not only set a show,
But we must hugg the post that stands below;
Let therefore young and old be warn’d by us,
Lest when it is too [late, for crime’s] a curse.

* A reference to William Cushing, who replaced his father, John Cushing, on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1771.

Note: The words in brackets in the last line are cut off in the extant copy and represent my best guess as to what they were.

Sources

  • “Boston, April 1, 1771.” Boston Gazette, April 1, 1771, issue 834, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, March 16.” Boston Gazette, March 16, 1772, issue 884, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, May 14.” Boston News-Letter, May 14, 1772, issue 3480, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Boston, September 1.” Boston Gazette, September 2, 1771, issue 856, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • A Dialogue between Elizabeth Smith, and John Sennet. [Boston, 1772?]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.