Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Bloody Vintner--or, a Pretty Botched 17th Century Romance

Wing (2nd ed.) / K625A
When I first encountered murder in the archives as a graduate student, I was intrigued by the way seventeenth-century English communities policed themselves and sought to regain order and find justice after a crime had occurred.  I was also fascinated by the accounts of these crimes which emerged in popular press, and what readers might be able to reconstruct about the nature of these “bloody acts.”
Take, for example, the story of The Bloody Vintner, subtitled Cruelty Rewarded with Justice, from 1684.  This is the “true account” (note the legitimacy conveyed by the term) of Edward (alias) Edmund Kirk, a Vintner, who “privately married” a serving maid, and then turned around and killed her only eight days later.  He was sentenced to death, and was duly executed by hanging within six weeks. (Check out Sam Thomas’ post on a botched execution). 

Edward Kirk’s story got some attention at the time, written up three times in the popular press in both ballad and broadside forms. While three other men were executed July 11, 1684 at Tyburn, certainly Edward’s murder of his secret wife was far more lurid and interesting than the two men who had broken into the house of the Duke of Ormand, or the man who had stolen a horse.  Those men's names are likely recorded in the sessions records of the Old Bailey, and perhaps their birth, marriage, and property information could be found in their local church records, but little else of their stories seems to remain.
What’s interesting to me is how so much, relatively speaking, is known of Edward Kirk, while so little is known of Joan Greene, the servant who came to such a pitiful end. Referred to mainly as “Mrs. Kirk,” what can be pieced together from Joan’s life are just shadowy glimpses.  In his “last dying speech,” Edward goes on at length about his birth and early years in Fetcham and Mucklam (both in Surry), his failed attempt to become a watch-maker like his brother, his desire to enter the vinter’s trade and his subsequent service at a few taverns, and his ambition to one day keep his own “vitualling house.”
What we know of Joan Greene is scant, and all our knowledge has been filtered through Edward’s moralistic, somewhat chagrined, slightly defensive narrative (which may be hard to distinguish from the perspective of the penny authors who “faithfully” recorded his “dying words”). The two met at The Leg Tavern where she worked and he used to go with friends—“Often going thither I observed this woman, and took the opportunity to being acquainted with her; my frequent visits having now made me familiar with her.”  That Edward had some amorous feelings towards her, at least initially, is clear: “I began to feel in myself a more particular respect and affection for her…she accepted my Love, whereupon I made her a promise to marry her, which she very soon and willingly embraced.”
Something changed, however, in their relationship soon after.  As Edward tells it, Joan began “haunting” his place of employment, a tavern called the Miter, and his employers were not too happy. They allegedly warned him that her continued presence at their tavern would prove “prejudicial to him” if he did not forsake her company. 
At this point, the narrative of their relationship takes a tragic turn. In some seventeenth-century hands, these events would have been written as a merry farce; here, the events are chronicled written matter-of-factly, and their nondescript quality is all the more poignant if you read between the lines.  
It seems that Joan then quit her job, and managed to get Edward’s employers to hire her on as a house servant (but notably, not to work in their tavern). They lived together there for “three quarters of a year” before she eventually moved to a merchant’s house in Thames Street.  Notably, they’re still not married at this point. Edward stayed on a year at the Miter before finding work at the Swan.  At that point he explains, “I had not been above three days there [before] she followed me, still urging and pressing me to marry her as she had done before, so often that I began to grow weary of her importunities and left that place.” He went to another tavern, where after two weeks she found him again. And so this pattern went on for a while, until he seems to have finally given up, and married her.  
They kept the marriage secret, but Edward does not say why. One can only surmise, though, that he had some immediate regrets, seeing the terrible change of heart that followed only eight days later: “I called upon her at her Master’s house, and desired her to go out and walk with me, and when we came to a field near Paddington I did that bloody act, for which I now deservedly suffer.” As he explains, “It has been with great trouble and affliction of my soul, that should be so barbarous and cruel to her… I first gave her a knock with my cane which beat her back, and falling down I cut her throat with a small knife I had in my pocket, without giving her the liberty of speaking one word of mercy.” (That last admission may have surely done him in with a godly jury, and have been seized upon by the ardent clergy who urged him towards repentance.) 
Why did Edward do it?  We can only surmise from a sole passage. “What was the first chief cause that was the occasion of my disagreement with my wife, was her humor to follow me from place to place, and to hinder my associating my self with Lewd and Debauched company.” (She doesn’t seem to have trusted him, perhaps because he was hanging out with prostitutes, even though they were engaged.).  This “small spark” became a “flame of dissention,” and as the Devil informed him, only her “innocent blood” could provide satisfaction. 
Regardless, after some weeks, her body was discovered. Edward seems to have denied knowing her at first, but as you can imagine that didn’t go to well.  We don’t have too many facts here, but the marriage seems to have come to light fairly quickly. I like to think the exchange with the local constable went something like this:
Edward: “I didn’t know this woman.”
Constable: “Oh really? Weren’t you secretly married to her?”
Edward shuffles his feet. “Well, okay. Yes. But I didn’t kill her.”
Constable: “Isn’t that a bloody knife in your pocket there?”
Edward: “Well, yes, but you can’t prove it.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite like that. But we do know Edward confessed to the crime, and was hanged.  Just from the evidence, we’ll never really know what happened, or why. The historian in me sighs over such tantalizing details, and works to construct a plausible narrative where none can be found. But the writer in me loves to speculate and fill in the gaps.  Did Joan make one shrewish comment too many? Was she some sort of deranged stalker? Was Edward a womanizer? Or just suffering a mental break?  This is exactly the kind of case that inspired my novel, The Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the story of a young servant trying to keep her brother from being wrongly executed for another servant’s death…

Monday, June 18, 2012

It's not easy being hanged...

On a Sunday morning in 1668, a sixteen year-old apprentice named Thomas Savage escaped his master’s watchful eye and ran to one of London’s brothels. When Savage’s money ran out, one of the prostitutes, a woman named Hannah Blay, urged him to rob his master and return. Savage agreed, but was caught in the act by his fellow-servant, whom he beat to death with a hammer. Upon learning of Savage’s crime, Blay (understandably) would have nothing to do with him, and he fled towards Greenwich, where he was arrested and taken by hue and cry.

And that’s when the fun really began, for Savage’s soul and body became a battleground, political and religious leaders fought to impose their agenda on the life and crimes of Thomas Savage. While executions were more common in the past than they are now, a “good” execution was hard to pull off, and  Savage’s case offers an excellent example of what could go wrong when the state tried to make an example of a criminal.

The battle over Savage’s soul began shortly after he had been sentenced to death when a group of puritan ministers visited him in prison, hoping to convert him to a more enthusiastic kind of Protestantism. Many felons received this sort of treatment, for the minister who saved the soul of a notorious could garner a great deal of fame, presumably by word of mouth but also in print. The ministers who converted Savage published a book about their exploits called A Murderer Punished and Pardoned, which remained in print for nearly forty years. (Fun fact: ministers from different religious denominations would compete with each other to save a condemned prisoner’s soul!)

In most cases such as this, the story is pretty basic. A man commits a crime, is caught, and imprisoned. The ministers convince him of his sinful nature, he repents, and goes happily to his place of execution, where he once again confesses his sins and warns others to take heed of his fate.

And while Savage initially resisted the ministers’ efforts, he soon “dissolved into tears...and admitted the heinousness of his sin.” So far so good, right?

Unfortunately, according to one of the ministers, “the Devil was loath to lose such a prey when he had brought him to the very mouth and gates of hell, to have him snatched out of his hands by the free grace of God.” And so Savage, “was by some former acquaintance (who showed their love to a death-deserving sinner no other way than by calling for drink did twice relapse into that sin of drunkenness.”

Nor was this the end of Savage’s backsliding, for the ministers had to include yet another disclaimer at the end of their account, writing:

Take notice that the report that the reason he was not executed on Monday was that he was drunk is an abominable falsehood. For to our knowledge he did not eat nor drink that morning.

It thus seems that despite his notoriety, Thomas Savage proved an uncertain model for religious conversion, and we can only wonder what readers would have made of his winding path to redemption. Would they wonder if his conversion was genuine? If so, would they go on to question the redemptive power of God’s free grace?

But this was not the end of Thomas’s troubles, for the officials charged with hanging him had strikingly similar problems getting the job done.

After Savage’s conviction, he was escorted to the gallows where he made a suitably contrite speech warning other young men to avoid the path he’d taken, and was turned off the cart without a fight. According to one witness:

He struggled for a while, heaving up his body which a young man (his friend) seeing, to put him out of his pain, struck him with all his might on the breast several times, then no motion was perceived in him.

Such struggles cannot have been uncommon, but they did not speak to the competence of the officials in charge of the hanging – execution was not supposed to involve audience participation! In any event, once it was agreed that Thomas was dead, he was cut down and taken to a local inn for be prepared for burial. And then the trouble began again.

To the astonishment of the beholders, he began to stir and breath and rattle in his throat, and it was evident his life was whole within him. He was carried to a bed, where he breathed more strongly and opened his eyes and mouth and offered to speak, but could not recover the use of his tongue.

Thomas’s undertakers turned caretakers also sent for the sheriff so they could have another go at the hanging. Thomas apparently felt that one hanging was enough, and fought tooth-and-nail all the way to the gallows, “giving a kick to the executioner and one of the bailiffs a blow to the mouth.”

As in the case of his conversion, Thomas’s execution raises as many questions as it answers. And what do we make of a government that cannot successfully hang a sixteen year-old boy?

While Thomas’s execution was meant to simultaneously display God’s mercy and the state’s majesty, it wound up doing neither of these things. In fact, a teenage boy undermined them both.     

Monday, June 4, 2012

"There is Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow"

In a post from last week, I wrote about the difficulty (and importance) of avoiding anachronism in historical fiction, not simply in terms of material culture, but the world-view of our characters. Authors have to negotiate a difficult path between the Scylla of making our characters too modern, and the Charybdis of making them so historical that readers cannot identify with them.

Oddly enough, that post was a bit of an unintended tangent. The subject I had intended to write about was divine providence.

Devotees of Shakespeare no doubt recognize Hamlet’s claim that, “There is special providence in / the fall of a sparrow.” (V. ii. 215-6) In this passage, Shakespeare is drawing on an idea found in the book of Matthew, which notes, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father?” (Matt. 10.29)

Shakespeare and Matthew are making two related points here. The first is relatively straightforward: Nothing that happens without God’s permission. If you accept the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, this is an obvious (and not terribly interesting) point.

But in the early modern period, there was another rather more foreign concept that went along with this. Not only did God authorize every event, virtually any event, good or bad, could be interpreted as a sign from God.

In other words, the world was a series of coded messages from God, and the believer was obliged to study their lives in search of His hidden meaning.

In some cases, the meaning of events could be quite clear. In 1623, a Jesuit priest named Robert Drury was in the midst of delivering a sermon to some three-hundred hearers when the floor of his makeshift church collapsed, killing Drury and scores of hearers. For Puritan preachers and pamphleteers, such a tragedy was (literally and figuratively) a gift from God. What better proof could you want that God hated Catholicism?

But God was not always so obvious when he spoke, and Englishmen and women (especially the godly) had to listen carefully. Puritan minister Oliver Heywood wrote in his diary of his narrow escape from serious injury when his horse fell and nearly crushed him:

“I reflected upon what I was thinking of when I fell, and I had been thinking of the great company that came to hear me preach the day before…and methought that was a seasonable correction to my pride…blessed be god for his gracious confutation of my pride.”

Here Heywood has found divine reproach for the sin of pride in a relatively common event. It’s not that he was lucky, and it wasn’t chance. In that moment, God known what he was thinking and as a warning against the sin of pride He had knocked Heywood’s horse to the ground.

Nor was this a singular example. Heywood kept a diary dedicated to examples of God’s providence, listing the horrible accidents met by sinners, and the blessings bestowed on saints. What is more, when Heywood grew old, his very survival was an ongoing example of divine providence. How else could he explain his mere existence except that God had made a conscious decision to allow it?

The idea of divine providence is important not just as a reminder that in many ways our characters are not us. At times they may look and act like us, but the mental world in which they live is much, much different. When our characters react to a murder, the death of a monarch, or the outbreak of war, the question some of them will ask is, “What is the meaning of this?”. And when they ask, they are dead serious – they want to know what God intends, and to react accordingly.