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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.

3 Comments

  1. This is an amazing blog and I love the stories the poems are great. Thanks for posting

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Romaine Kennison wrote:

    Imagine my surprise when I happened upon The Dying Lamentation and Advice of Philip Kennison, which is my father’s name. I was stunned that he was in jail, but then I noticed the date of his incarceration and, of course, it was not my father. I sent him a note asking if it were a long past relative and he reminded me his name was originally spelled Kenneson, but the Army misspelled it when he enlisted during WWII. Still, I enjoyed the poem, and the novelty of finding another Philip
    Kennison, who although a thief, was just as fond of words then as my beloved father is today.

    Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Merle S. A. wrote:

    I enjoyed reading this poem. My father was also a poet, and was also in prison, but as a prisoner of war during WWII.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 3:34 am | Permalink

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