Skip to content

In the Media: Insights into Researching Early American Crime

Go to In the Media

When I speak at libraries, historical societies, and other groups about early American crime, I am often asked where and how I find information about these historical criminals.

The short answer is that I generally use a combination of databases that are freely available on the Web and subscription databases that I access through local libraries. I also use a handful of print resources. Regular readers of this blog probably know this information already, because I always include a list of the sources I consulted during my research at the end of each article.

But if you are interested in gaining even greater insight into how I approach my research, you can read an article I wrote that just appeared in the November 2012 edition of the Readex Report entitled, “Digging Up Crime Stories from America’s Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar.”

The Readex Report is the official newsletter of Readex/Newsbank, the company that publishes two important subscription databases for my research, America’s Historical Imprints and America’s Historical Newspapers. History buffs might also enjoy the other articles in the newsletter, which include a story about a late nineteenth-century African-American cycling champion and another one about the first Egyptian mummy to be commercially displayed in America.

Crime Poems: Robert Young’s True Character

Click image to read more Crime Poems

Fifteen year-old Robert Young used his time in Dublin in 1765 to find his true character. He decided that he was “an absolute hater of all sorts of strong liquor,” but he also discovered that he was “much inclined to the company of women.” This inclination moved him to try his hand at seducing one of his master’s maids, who at first resisted his advances until his persistence and the “large promises” he made finally weakened her.

Young’s father had sent his son to Dublin from Carrick, Ireland to work for George Reilly, a wholesale merchant. He had educated Young with the expectation that the boy would eventually follow in his footsteps, and he believed that his son would gain valuable experience in the business world by working for Reilly. But Young came away from his time in Dublin with a worldly education that was not what his father had intended.

Young’s Education

Once Young attained his goal of seducing Reilly’s maid, he used his close connection with the merchant to have her discharged to ensure that the illicit relationship would remain a secret. Young then turned his attentions to “lewd women,” and with their influence he lost any noble spirit he originally possessed and “in a short time learned to drink to excess.”

Reilly soon discovered how Young was spending his time away from the warehouse, and he threatened to tell Young’s parents about it if he did not quit his current lifestyle and apply himself to learning the ways of business. Young responded by leaving Reilly and traveling to Liverpool, England for a two-week vacation. After he returned to Dublin, he enlisted in the army.

Young committed “all manner of debauchery” while in the army, and before he left Dublin with his regiment, he was treated in the hospital for syphilis, his first of many such treatments. As Young moved from place to place as a soldier, he continued to seduce and abandon women along the way. He eventually landed in Canada under General Burgoyne, and as the army wintered in Quebec, he came up with a scheme to supplement his meager earnings. He developed a relationship with a widow, who supplied him with money that he then used to buy liquor and spend time with bad company. When it came time for his regiment to go to Ticonderoga, the widow pleaded with Young to stay behind with her, but in perfect step, he marched on.

Desertion

Young saw action in two battles but came out of both unscathed. After marching with his regiment to Hadley, MA, a woman he met talked him into deserting the army. He took her advice, spent the night with her, and then continued his rakish ways as he traveled around New England.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 11, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Young landed a job as a schoolteacher in Greenfield, MA, and after two months went back to his “old practices of seducing the young women,” although he never explicitly says whether any of them were his students. One girl in town took a particular fancy to Young, and she often visited him “in private.” Her parents tried to keep the two apart by refusing to allow Young in their house, but their efforts came to no avail. And when Young eventually left Greenfield, the girl continued to slip away to visit him.

Teacher Opening

Young moved around acting as a schoolteacher in several towns, when he learned that there was an opening for a teacher in Brookfield, MA. When he arrived there in 1779, he decided to keep the fact that he had deserted the British army a secret so as to avoid any problems. Young opened a school on the property of Samuel Green, and not surprisingly he soon struck up relations with Green’s daughter, Anne. When Anne’s parents found out about the relationship, they were furious, especially because they knew that Young was having similar contacts with other women in town and on many nights never came home.

But this time was different. Young believed he was truly in love with Anne. He promised to quit his relationships with the other women and offered Anne marriage. He even told her that he belonged to the British army and assured her that he would never go back to it. Anne’s parents and friends tried their best to derail the relationship, but she held firm to her intention to marry Young. Young himself, though, made sure that the marriage would never happen.

On September 3 with their marriage only a few days away, Young got drunk and then raped one of his students, Jane Green, Anne’s eleven year-old sister.

Young was tried at the Superior Court in Worcester, and the Massachussets Spy reported that

the evidence of his crime was clear and striking. The jury found him guilty, and he received sentence of death on Saturday last. It is supposed that greater influences of brutality and barbarity, were never exercised in a crime of this kind, than were exhibited by said Young in the perpetration of this inhuman deed. The circumstances of which decency forbids us to publish in a public news paper.

Before Young was executed on November 11, 1779 at the age of 29, he wrote a poem called, “The Dying Criminal,” although it also offers little detail about what happened on that fateful evening in September.

(Library of Congress)

The Dying CRIMINAL:
A
POEM.

By ROBERT YOUNG, on his own Execution, which was on Thursday last, November 11th, 1779, for a RAPE committed on the Body of Jane Green, a Child eleven Years of Age, at Brookfield, in the County of Worcester, on the 3d Day of September last. Corrected from his own Manuscript.

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight—they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 24, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Sources

  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place. August 20.” Connecticut Gazette, October 27, 1779, vol. XVII, issue 833, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Worcester, October 14.” Massachusetts Spy, October 14, 1779, vol. IX, issue 441, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Young, Robert. The Dying Criminal: A Poem. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. Worcester, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.

Places and Events: Old Jails in Maine

Go to EAC Places and Events

I had to duck my head as I passed through the low doorway that led into the dungeon of the Old Gaol in York, ME. The sole electric lamp trying to replicate what the lighting would have been like in the jail cell in the 1700s and the musty smell resulting from a lack of fresh air effectively transported me back in time. As I thought about the criminals who were once held here and tried to imagine what their experience must have been like, my two teenage daughters and their friend were outside sunning themselves on a stone wall before deciding to walk across the street to buy a refreshing drink.

By now, my family is used to me dragging them to historic sites that have connections to America’s criminal past as part of our vacations. But this time we were traveling with another family during our recent trip to Maine. Still, I managed to talk my traveling companions into stopping off to see the Old Gaol as we journeyed up the Maine coast, and as we continued on, we even stumbled onto yet another early American jail. I could not believe my luck.

The Pemaquid Village Jail

The earlier of the two jails we saw dates back to the 17th century and was a serendipitous find after I insisted that we visit the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site in Bristol, ME. The jail was part of the Pemaquid Village–which was established between 1625 and 1628–and all that is left of it today are the stone cellar walls that indicate a once small structure divided into two rooms.

The Pemaquid Village Jail

Archaeologists identified the building as a jail when they discovered the charred remains of a stockade that created a penned-in area adjacent to one corner of the building. The jail structure was burned down twice by Native Americans–once in 1676 and then again, with encouragement from the neighboring French to the north, in 1689–and the stockade must have burned down along with it.

The jail is not much to look at today, but the walls outlined by the rubble adequately convey the claustrophobia that its inhabitants must have endured long ago. I know of no other extant jail structure in the U.S. that dates back as far as this one (if you know of one, please share it in the comments), so this find turned out to be quite an historical treat for me, even as my teenage travelers urged me to hurry along so that they could go swimming.

The Old Gaol in York

The Old Gaol, one of the Museums of Old York, was built in 1719 with timbers salvaged from the original York jail constructed in 1656. The dungeon on the main floor is made up of three-foot thick stone walls and is adjacent to the kitchen, which was part of the living quarters of the gaoler and his family. After murdering her master’s grandchild in 1734, Patience Boston was held in this dank and gloomy space, and during her stay she gave birth to her third child. Today, visitors can stand on the same spot at the end of the long and narrow window that leads into the jail cell where Rev.s Samuel and Joseph Moody counseled Boston and helped her embrace Christianity before her execution on July 24, 1735. (See below for links to stories of more criminals who were once held in the Old Gaol.)

The Old Gaol in York, ME

As the population of Maine grew, so did the need for jail space, so the Gaol was expanded and the holding cells were moved to the second floor. While the gaoler and his family received more space and improved living accommodations as a result, they also lost a lot of their privacy. Instead of through the kitchen, prisoners now had to pass through the gaoler’s bedroom to enter the holding cells on the second floor, and all that separated the two spaces was a thin wooden door covering a small interior window through which food could be passed. This arrangement meant that prisoners could hear everything that was going on in the gaoler’s bedroom, and the gaoler and his wife could hear any noise coming from the adjacent cell. The children had it little better. They slept in another bedroom that was connected to the debtor’s cell.

Despite the best efforts by the gaolers to keep the Old Gaol’s prisoners locked up, some of these criminals still managed to escape. A particularly inventive Nathaniel Cole, who in 1819 was being held on the second floor for debt, smeared blood on the saw blades that partly blocked an air vent that led into his cell and then hid up the chimney. When the gaoler later entered the room and saw the bloodied saw blades, he assumed that Cole had wounded himself while escaping down the shaft and immediately ran out to find him. Cole then slipped back down the chimney and walked out the front door.

My teenage traveling companions escaped out of the Old Gaol almost as fast as Cole did after they quickly walked through just enough rooms to justify their entrance fee. Alas, while I cannot say that the girls toured these two historic sites with the same enthusiasm as I did, they did give me enough time to revel in these physical reminders of America’s early criminal past.

Stories of Criminals Held in the Old Gaol in York, ME

Early American Criminals: The Cuckolded Soldier

Go to Early American Criminals

Click image to read more Early American Criminals

Around 1764 or 1765, Bryan Sheehen returned home to his wife in Casco Bay, ME after serving in the regular army for a long six and a half years. But the joy of his homecoming turned into rage when he learned that his wife had remarried during his absence to a Frenchman. Sheehen made preparations to kill the man by sharpening the end of a hanger, but his anger subsided before the two met and cooler heads prevailed when they agreed that their wife should choose which husband she wanted.

She chose Sheehen.

But her choice did not save the marriage. Sheehen could not stomach the thought of the Frenchman’s child living with them, and so even though he had subsequently had three or four children by his wife (all of whom died except one), he abandoned her and moved to Marblehead, MA.

Carelessness and Reluctance

Sheehen was born in Ireland in 1732 to a mixed religious household. His father was Catholic and his mother Anglican, so he and his brothers attended Catholic services and his sisters accompanied their mother to the English church. At the age of 20, he went to Newfoundland to work in the fishing industry before moving to Charlestown, MA to work as a truckman. From there, he bound himself as a servant to the shipbuilder Benjamin Hollowell in Boston.

While Sheehen lived with Hollowell, he was required to attend religious services with the family, and his master occasionally quizzed him on the text of the gospel and the content of the sermon. Since Sheehen was not used to the Protestant service, he performed these duties “with carelessness and reluctance.”

After he finished his term and left Hollowell, he met another person who got him drunk and tricked him into signing yet another indentured servant contract. Sheehen left no details as to who this person was or what work he was required to perform, but after he satisfied the terms of the contract he moved to Casco Bay and got married.

Marblehead

After Sheehen abandoned his family in 1768 and moved to Marblehead, he worked once again in the fishing business as a sailor. But when he was not out at sea, he hung around the streets and developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person.” During the winter of 1770-1771, a shop owner accused Sheehen and another man of planning to burglarize his store when he spotted them loitering in front of his establishment. In response, Sheehen violently threatened and abused the shop owner, and as punishment he was confined to the jail in Salem and then publicly whipped. During his imprisonment, Sheehen learned that his wife had died, which deeply affected him.

That July, Sheehen was in the tavern of a Mrs. Poor when a woman struck his fancy. When she left the room he enquired about her, and when she returned he ordered her a drink. She refused it. He offered her money, but she declined to take that as well. Frustrated, he left Mrs. Poor’s house, and when he returned and asked about her again, he was informed that she was married.

The woman turned out to be Abial Hollowell, wife of Benjamin Hollowell. This Benjamin was not the shipbuilder, Benjamin Hallowell, who had owned Sheehen as an indentured servant back in Boston, but Sheehen must have at least had some recognition that she shared a similar sounding last name as his former master.

Pursuit

The knowledge that Abial Hollowell was married did nothing to detract Sheehen from pursuing her, and the women in town did their best to hide and protect her from his advances. But they could not save her one night when Sheehen broke into her house and entered her room with a lighted candle. When Hollowell woke up and saw Sheehen in her room, she asked him in a fright what he wanted and pleaded for him to leave. Sheehen offered her money, which she again refused. Then he blew out the candle.

Sheehen leaped onto Hollowell’s bed, covered her mouth with his hand, threatened that if she made any noise he would kill her, and raped her. Afterward, in an attempt to prevent her from becoming pregnant, he abused “her with his other hand in so shocking a manner that she had little hope or expectation of her life.” As a result, she was unable to get out of bed without help for 10 days afterward.

Sheehen was arrested on September 13 and charged with the crime. Hollowell testified against him in court, and a physician who examined her corroborated her account. Sheehen, though, claimed that she had consented to lying in bed with him.

Evidence

Rape was a capital offense in Massachusetts at the time, so Sheehan was sentenced to execution. He steadfastly maintained until the end that he was not guilty, and his stubborn refusal to confess the crime garnered sympathy from some members of the public who consequently believed that he should not have been hanged. But the attorney general at his trial asserted “that he had been at a number of trials of the like kind, but never knew one so plain, and the evidence so full against the prisoner.”

Essex Gazette - March 31, 1772 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (Readex.com), a division of NewsBank, inc.)

James Dimon, Pastor of the Second Church in Salem, published the sermon he gave on January 16, 1772, the day of Sheehen’s execution. He also added a brief account of Sheehen’s life at the end of the publication in which he accused Sheehen of committing a similar crime while living in Casco Bay.

In his account, Dimon describes in shocking detail a similar crime suffered by another woman, except that, unlike Hollowell, this woman died. After boasting to his companions what he had done, the man was arrested and held in a private home for lack of a jail, but after 2 or 3 days he escaped. This man fit the description of Sheehen, and the informants who told Dimon about this case were fairly certain that Sheehen was the one who committed the crime. Dimon contends that these events were the real reason Sheehen abandoned his wife and son in Casco Bay.

Postscript

Before his execution, Sheehen sold his body to a Dr. Kast of Salem for dissection, and in his last words he informed the hangman of this fact. But a March report in the Massachusetts Spy assures the public that Kast never obtained Sheehen’s body, because “between thirty and forty persons last Friday se’nnight opened his grave, where they found [Sheehen] lying nearly in the same state he was buried in, the afternoon he was executed.”

Sources

  • An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen. [Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Dimon, James. A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772. Salem, MA: Samuel and Ebenezer Hall, 1772. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Extract of a Letter from Chatham, September 15.” Connecticut Courant, November 19, 1771, issue 360, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Kellow, Margaret. “Bryan Sheehan: Servant, Soldier, Fisherman.” The Human Condition in Colonial America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, September 24.” Boston News-Letter, September 26, 1771, issue 3546, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Salem, March 3.” Massaschusetts Spy, March 5, 1772, vol. II, issue 53, p. 211. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Thursday, January 23. Boston.” Massachusetts Spy, January 23, 1771, vol. I, issue 47, p. 187. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.

Crime Poems: “Inhuman Cruelty”

Click image to read more Crime Poems

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”

Go to Early American Criminals

Click image to read more Early American Criminals

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”

Click image to read more Crime Poems

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”

Click image to read more Crime Poems

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

Go to Early American Criminals

Click image to read more Early American Criminals

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

Click image to read more Crime Poems

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.