This trial is a very singular case of treason, and may be considered as an appendix to our history of the rebellion. Though the crime for which he was executed, was committed three years after it was quelled, yet the same misjudged opinion urged this youth to enthusiasm in the cause of the Pretender. It is still more singular, that he, neither being a Scotchman born, or in any way interested in the mischiefs which he contemplated, should, unsolicited, volunteer in so dangerous a cause. Whence, when first apprehended, many were of opinion that he was disordered in the brain; but the firmness of his demeanour, during his imprisonment and trial, removed these doubts.
James Sheppard was the son of Thomas Sheppard, a glover in Southwark; but his father dying when he was about five years of age, he was sent to school in Hertfordshire, whence his uncle, Dr. Hinchcliffe, removed him to Mitcham, in Surrey, and afterwards to Salisbury, where he remained at school three years. Being at Salisbury at the time of the rebellion, he imbibed the principles of his schoolfellows, many of whom were favourers of the Pretender; and he was confirmed in his sentiments by reading some pamphlets which were then put into his hands.
When he quitted Salisbury, Dr. Hinchcliffe put him. apprentice to Mr. Scott, a coach-painter, in Devonshire-street, near Bishopsgate; and he continued in this situation about fourteen months, when he was apprehended for the fact which cost him his life.
Sheppard having conceived the idea that it would be a praise-worthy action to kill the king, wrote a letter,. which he intended for a nonjuring minister of the name. of Leake; but mistaking the spelling, he directed it "to the Reverend Mr. Heath." This letter, a copy of which follows, he carried to Mr. Leake's house.
"From the many discontents visible throughout this kingdom, I infer, that if the prince now reigning could be by death removed, our king being here he might be settled on his throne without much loss of blood. For the more ready effecting of this, I propose, that if any gentleman will pay for my passage into Italy, and if our friends will intrust one so young with letters of invitation to his majesty, I will, on his arrival, smite the usurper in his palace. In this confusion, it sufficient, forces may be raised, his majesty may appear; if not, he may retreat or conceal himself till a fitter opportunity. Neither is it presumptuous to hope that this may succeed, if we consider how, easy it is to cut the thread of human life, how great confusion the death of a prince occasions in the most peaceful nation, and how mutinous the people are, how desirous of a change. But, we will suppose the worst, that I am seized, and by torture examined. Now that this may endanger none but myself, it will be necessary that the gentleman who defrays my charges to Italy leave England before my departure; that I be ignorant of his majesty's abode; that I lodge with some Whig; that you abscond; and that this be communicated to none. But be the event as it will, I can expect nothing less than a most cruel death; which, that I may the better support, it will be requisite that, from my arrival till the attempt, I every day receive the holy sacrament from one who shall be ignorant of the design.
Mr. Leake was absent when this letter arrived, but on his return he read it; on which he said to his daughter and maid-servant, that it was a most villainous letter, and not fit to be kept; and, in the height of his resentment, he threw it into the fire, and went up into his study; but coming down soon afterwards, his daughter told him that she had recollected that the boy who had brought the letter, said he would call for an answer on the following Monday.
Hereupon Mr. Leake determined to make the affair known to Sir John Fryer, a neighbouring magistrate, which he did the following morning; when Sir John advised him to take the party into custody when he should return for the answer. Sheppard came at the time, that he had promised, when Mr. Leake sent for a constable, and had him apprehended.
Being carried before Sir John Fryer, he was asked if he had delivered a letter at Mr. Leake's on the preceding Friday, directed to the Rev. Mr. Heath. He answered in the affirmative: and being asked if he had a copy of that letter, he said he had no copy about him, but he believed he could remember it, so as to write a copy. This being done, and he having deliberately read and signed what he had written, was committed to the Compter.
Three gentlemen were now sent to the house of the prisoner's master, and being shewn his trunk, they found, among some other papers, a copy of the letter he had left at Mr. Leake's, which differed very little from that written at Sir John Fryer's, only that these words were added: "How meritorious an act will it be to free these nations from an usurpation that they have lain under these nine and twenty years;" and it was insinuated that he thought it requisite, that while his majesty (the Pretender) should be absent from Avignon, "some person should be found resembling him, that should personate him there, lest the rumour of his departure from Avignon should awaken this inquisitive and suspicious court."
Soon after Sheppard's commitment, he was twice examined at the office of Lord Sunderland, then Secretary of State when he attempted to justify his conduct, and readily signed what he had before written.
When he was brought to his trial, he behaved in the most firm and composed manner; and after the evidence against him was given, and the jury had brought him in Guilty of high treason, he was asked why sentence should not be passed on him according to law, when he said, "He could not hope for mercy from a prince whom he would not own." Then the recorder proceeded to past sentence on him, which he prefaced with the following most pathetic speech.
"James Sheppard, you are convicted according to law of the greatest offence against human authority, high treason, in compassing and imagining the death of the king. Your intent was to kill, to murder, and basely assassinate his Majesty King George, in order to place a Popish Pretender on his throne.
"It is very surprising, that one so young in years should attempt so wicked an enterprise; and it is more amazing that you should still thus defend and justify it, and not only think that there is no harm in it, but that the action, if committed, would have been meritorious.
"It was reasonable to think that you had received those impressions which incited you to this undertaking, from some of those false and malicious libels which have been industriously dispersed, to delude unwary readers, and to alienate the minds of his majesty's subjects; and it appears to be so from your own confession, that you had imbibed your principles from sermons and pamphlets, which make you think King George an usurper, and the pretender your lawful king.
"Consider, unhappy young man, whether you may not be in an error; and what, I now suggest to you is not to reproach you, or to aggravate your crime, but proceeds from compassion, and, with a regard to your further consideration before you go out of the world; that you may be convinced of your error, and retract it.
"The notions you entertain are contrary to the sense of the nation, who found, by experience, that their religion, their laws, and liberties, were in imminent danger from a popish prince, and, therefore they rescued themselves from that danger, and excluded papists for the future from the crown; and settled on his majesty and his heirs, being protestants; which has been confirmed by many parliaments, and the nation feels the good effects of so happy an establishment.
It seems strange that you should hint at a passage in St. Paul for your justification. If he exhorted the Christians to submit to the Roman emperors, even though they should be tyrants, how comes it that you, private youth, should not only judge of the title of kings, in opposition to the sense. of so many parliaments; but that you should, think yourself authorised to murder a prince in peaceable possession of the throne, and by whom his subjects are protected in the enjoyment of all their rights and privileges, and of every thing that is dear and valuable to mankind.
"You mention in your papers as if you must expect the most cruel tortures. No, unfortunate youth, the king you will not own, uses no cruel tortures to his subjects. He is king according to the laws of the land, and by them he governs. And as you have transgressed those laws in the highest degree, the public justice requires that you should submit to the Sentence ordained for such an offender, which is "That you be led from hence to the place from whence you came; from thence you are to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there you are to be hanged by the neck, and, being alive; to be cut down, your bowels to be taken out of your belly, and there burnt, you being alive; your head is to be cut off, and your body to be divided into four quarters, and your head and quarters to be disposed of as his majesty shall think fit. And God Almighty have mercy on your soul."
After sentence was passed, Sheppard confessed that the reading some sermons, and other pamphlets, had induced him to think that it would be a meritorious act to kill the king; and that he was convinced he was the agent destined by Providence to accomplish the deed. -- The ordinary of Newgate told him, that he should have prayed that such wicked sentiments might be removed from his mind. His reply was, that "he had prayed; and that in proportion as he prayed, he was so much the more encouraged and confirmed in the lawfulness of his design."
The unhappy youth was now visited by a nonjuring clergyman, between whom and the ordinary there were repeated quarrels, which continued almost to the last moments of Sheppard's life; for they wrangled even at the place of execution, nor did the debate cease till the ordinary quitted the cart, and left the other to instruct and pray with the malefactor as he thought proper.
Sheppard was executed a few hours after the marquis of Paleotti.