Traditions states early hangings took place at what is now 7th and Edgmont Aves. aka Avenue of the States today, The above picture is from about 1900.
Note; There was a big interest in my column last week about witches in Delco. So this week some early hangings.
In Colonial times, hangings costs were 1b 6s 6d, or about eight dollars, for it was in Colonial money, in which a pound was only a little more than half the value of the pound sterling. Below are some interesting and unusual early criminal cases and punishments. Hangings were done in Chester then it was the county seat for Chester County, Delaware County was not created till September 1789.
In 1722, William Batten, who had “been convicted of Divers horrid, complicated crimes,” was on August 3 of that year, ordered by the Provincial Council to “be executed and hung in chains in the most public place at such time as the Governor shall appoint, and that the warrant for the execution be issued before the Governor set out for Albany.” I cannot fix the exact date when execution was made. This is the only instance in the criminal history of Chester and Delaware Counties when after execution, the body of the convict was gibbeted – that is, suspended in any iron frame work until the elements slowly destroyed the body.
At the court held September 27, 1728, William Davis was convicted of murdering his master, William Cloud, and was sentenced to be hanged “and his body at ye Disposal of ye Governor.” I cannot fix the date when Davis was executed.
At a special court held for the trial of negroes under the act of 1706, Phoebe, the slave of Joseph Richardson, was on March 2, 1764, convicted of burglary in entering the house of Thomas Barnard – that adjoining to the north Jonathan Pennell’s dwelling on Edgmont Avenue, facing Fourth Street. John Morton presided at the trial. Richardson her master, lived in his then new residence – the present Steamboat Hotel – and the Colonial treasury paid to him fifty-five pounds, the sum at which Phoebe was appraised, for the act of assembly providing that when a slave was executed the province must make good the loss to the owner of the Negro.
FIRST HOMICIDE TRIAL – The first homicide in our county was in the consequences which followed the execution, the most momentous in the history of the Colony and State. Hugh Pugh, a wheelwright, and Lazarus Thomas, a laborer, were hanged in Chester, Friday, May 9, 1718, for the murder of Jonathan Hayes, a resident of Marple Township and one of the judges of the county court. The crime was committed three years prior to the execution of the culprits.
The case was one which excited the public to that extent that in October, 1715, the Court instructed Henry Worley, Robert Carter and James Sandelands, the younger, to procure a place “more Convenient than the Court House for holding the Supreme Court for ye Tryail of these persons ye are holden in ye Jail of ye County on Suspition of murder.” We learn from the minutes of the Provincial County that for some reason the accused parties had been admitted to bail, “and through the indolence of a former administration,” that of Governor Charles Gookin, the men were not brought to trial until April 17, 1718, when Chief Justice Lloyd and the four associate justices of the Supreme Court were present as was Governor Sir William Keith, who occupied a place on the bench.
It seems that the prisoners were leaders of a “Lawless Gang of Loose fellows, Common Distrurbers of the public peace,” and “were so hardened and became so audacious as still to continue in their publick Rioting, Caballing and fighting.” Boasting openly that it was not within the power of the Government to try any capitol case, according to the common and statute laws of England, which the prisoners claimed as a right, they being English subjects.
On May 8, the day previous to the time set for the hanging, Hugh Pugh and Lazarus Thomas petitioned Sir William Keith for a stay of execution, until the pleasure of the King could be ascertained and at the same time formerly lodged with the Governor and council their appeal to George, the lst, in which they assigned three reasons rendering their conviction illegal. First, because seventeen of the Grand Jury and eight of the Petit Jury were Quakers, who had not been sworn. The Act of Assembly permitting affirmations by Governors and witnesses was enacted in violation of the Act of Parliament, passed in the first year of his majesty’s reign; second, because the Act of Assembly permitting affirmation to be made in all legal proceedings, was not enacted until “after said murder was supposed to be committed,” hence was expost facto and not applicable to their case, and third, because the Act of Assembly was repugnant to reason and in conflict with the laws and statutes of England, and therefore void.
The Governor and council refused to reprieve the prisoners and Sheriff Nicholas Fairlamb was instructed to execute the two men according to the death warrant, which, signed, by Chie justice Lloyd and the associate Justices of the supreme Court, had already been placed in his hands. The men were hanged and the public excitement ceased.
It was then the authorities began to question the legality of the execution, for the appeal to the King had not been forwarded, although it accompanied the petition for a stay of execution, or reprieve, and just at that time the King and his ministry regarded with no favor the mild criminal code framed by Penn which was then recognized in the province, and had repeatedly urged the colony to adopt that of the mother country. Only a few days elapsed when the legal reason which were urged by the hanged men to set aside their conviction, aroused such alarm among the leading class in the providence, as to the legality of the trial and subsequent execution of judgment, that in twenty-two days after May 31, 1718, the Assembly passed the act which substituted the fierce criminal code of England, which its then seventy odd offense punishable with death, in the colony, simply in exchange for the right to use affirmations in place of corporal oaths, the Legislature feeling assured that the little matter of illegally executing two “bad men,” would not weigh with the King if it accomplished his policy of substituting a rigorous system of punishment for crimes in Pennsylvania. The King approved and confirmed the Act of the Assembly early in 1719. The legal points raised by the accused in their petition was never made the subject of judicial consideration and decision, but the effect of their petition was to wholly change the criminal code of the province, and today the consequences of that trial, to a large extent obtain in our penal laws.
THE CASE OF SHIRTLIFFE – In the case of John McDonough, convicted of rape and executed Saturday, June 17, 1786, at Gallows Hill, was indicted jointly with Richard Shirtliffe and sentenced to be hanged at the same time and place with McDonough. A few days after the death warrant was delivered to Sheriff Gibbons, the supreme Executive Counsel, with a refinement of cruelty difficult to understand, considering the high character of the individuals then composing that body, ordered Richard Shirtliffe reprieved, but directed the Sheriff not to notify the man of the fact until he had been taken under the gallows and the rope placed under his neck. What became of Shirtliffe afterwards, how long he was detained in prison or formally pardoned, I do not know, but certain it is he was not hanged.
Thirty one persons have paid the death penalty in Delaware County, four of whom were women.