Ex-Classics Home Page

Newgate Calendar - JAMES O'COIGLEY


Executed on Penningdon Heath, June 7, 1798, for High Treason

            THE solemn, impressive, dying declaration of this unfortunate gentleman, must certainly create a distressing pause in every reader. We have frequently shown, that obdurate and ignorant criminals have died in a declaration of innocence, when crimes have been proved against them, beyond the very shadow of doubt; but when a man, born and educated a gentleman, a scholar, and receiving the last sacrament of his religion, appeals to his God, before whom, ere a few minutes of life to him remained in this world, solemnly avows to the surrounding multitude, gathered together to witness his untimely end, his perfect and entire innocence of the crime for which he has been convicted, charity will force us to question his guilt.

            The times in which he suffered were dangerous to the constitution of the kingdom. There were then, both in England, Ireland, and Scot land, many disaffected men, the leaders of parties assembling for purposes inimicable to the public weal. Many had been apprehended, and several had already suffered death, acknowledging their crimes; and others, by all ranks deemed guilty. In cases of this nature, the public mind is in a state of alarm, and all accused stand condemned by individuals; thus those charged of joining in a plot against the nation, an inward detestation against them is felt in every loyal breast; and hence the minds of jurymen must feel a strong bias against their fellows, arraigned for their lives, on which they are to determine. These are the irresistible workings of nature; and it might so unfortunately have turned out, that Mr. O'Coigley was a victim. We offer these observations as a tribute of charity for the departed man, yet we truly hope, dreadful as the alternative in thought may be, that he died fairly convicted of the crime for which he suffered. His best friends must certainly admit that suspicion might well fall upon any man thus connected with Arthur O'Conner, an apostate Irishman, who certainly attempted to sell his country to the foe; and is now high in rank in the service of the tyrant Buonaparte. Such was the ill fate of O'Coigley; who, together with the above-named O'Conner, John Binns, John Allen, and Jeremiah Leary, were arraigned at the Lent assizes for Kent, in the year 1798, of whom O'Coigley alone was found guilty; sufficient proof, however guilty the remainder in conscience were, not being adduced to convict them.

            The indictment was read by Mr. Knapp, who afterwards stated the charges it contained in a summary manner. He said there were three distinct species of treason charged in the indictment, and seven overt-acts. The first treason was compassing and imagining the death of the king: the second, was adhering to his enemies: the third, was compassing and imagining, inventing, devising, and intending to move and stir certain foreigners and strangers, that is to say, the persons exercising the powers of government in France, to invade this kingdom. The first overt act was, conspiring to levy war at Margate, in the county of Kent: the second overt-act, sending intelligence to the enemy: the other overt-acts were, attempts to hire vessels, and to leave the kingdom. The trial lasted two days. A pocket-book had been found in O'Coigley's great-coat, in which a paper was found addressed to the Executive Directory of France, from the Secret Committee of England.

            O'Coigley, in his defence, addressed the jury as follows: "It is impossible for me to prove a negative; but it is a duty I owe to you, and to myself, solemnly to declare, that I never was the bearer of any message or paper of this kind to France, in the course of my life. That paper is not mine; it never belonged to me. It states that it was to be carried by the bearer of the last; this is something which might have been proved, but it is impossible for me to prove the negative. There is also in this paper an allusion to secret committees and political societies. I declare that I never attended any political society whatever. With these considerations, I consign my life to your justice; not doubting but that you will conduct yourselves as English jurymen ever do, and that your verdict will be such as shall receive the approbation of your own conscience, your country, and your God."

            The jury, after about half an hour's consideration, found O'Coigley "Guilty," and acquitted the other prisoners.  Mr. Justice Buller, in an address to O'Coigley, which he read from a written paper, previous to his passing the sentence, observed, that he had been clearly convicted of the most atrocious crime which could be committed in any country—that of meditating the destruction of a Sovereign, who was one of the best, the most just, upright, and amiable of princes that ever graced a throne; and he could not conceive what were the motives which could actuate any man, even to wish for the death of such, who had ever been the father of his people. The prisoner was also found guilty of conspiring to overturn the constitution of these kingdoms; a constitution which, from the experiment of years, had been found to be the best calculated of any that ever existed in the world, to insure the liberty, security, and happiness, of the people who lived under it. These atrocious crimes became still greater from the manner in which they were intended to be perpetrated—that of inviting a foreign enemy to come and invade, and conquer these countries. Those people, who had thought such an event a desirable one, ought to think seriously what the consequences of it would be, provided it was possible to be accomplished. Did they suppose that, (desperate as their present situation might be) their condition would be bettered by having their country put into the possession of people who were-holding out the delusive hopes of what they called liberty to other nations? Could such persons hope that they themselves should enjoy liberty, even supposing the conquerors to have enjoyed as free a constitution as any in the world? No, they would become suspected, be despised, and destroyed by them. A celebrated writer (Montesquieu) very justly observed upon this subject, that a country conquered by a democratic nation always enjoyed less liberty, was more miserable, and more enslaved, than if that country happened to have been conquered by a nation whose government was monarchial. But if there was any illustration of this observation wanting, one had only to look to the conduct of the French at this moment towards Holland, Italy, Switzerland, and every other country they had conquered. His Lordship believed that the prisoner might have been actuated by motives similar to those which used formerly to induce many people to think that the killing of men of a different religion would give them a claim to canonization. But though the motives might be similar, the subjects connected with them were very different. In the present times, he did not believe that any person entertained such sentiments about religion. On the contrary, he was sorry to find that religion was too much neglected, and that the peace and tranquillity of numbers of people were destroyed in consequence of having lost all belief of the existence of a Divine Providence, and totally abandoned all hopes of a future state. He was afraid that the prisoner had been infected with this infidelity, and if he was, he (the Judge) prayed that the Almighty God, in his infinite mercy and goodness, would change his heart, and cause him to repent of his sins.

            His lordship then, in a solemn and awful manner, passed the following sentence: "That the prisoner be taken from the bar to prison, and from thence to the place of execution; there to be hanged, but not until he be dead, to be cut down while yet alive, and then to have his heart and bowels taken out and burnt before his face; his head to be severed from his body; and his body to be divided into four quarters." Mr. O'Coigley listened to this address and sentence with attention, but at the same time with the greatest coolness. He bowed his head when the Judge concluded; his countenance expressing at once resignation and firmness.

            Immediately after the sentence was passed on O'Coigley, Mr. O'Conner, supposing himself at liberty, attempted to withdraw, when a warrant was served on him on another charge of high treason, signed by the Duke of Portland, and dated March 22. On this some swords were drawn, and a general confusion ensued, when Mr. O'Connor addressed the Court to this effect: "My Lord, I am surrounded with drawn swords,—I am prepared to die; and it would be better for the Court to doom me to death at once, than that I should linger out my life in a gaol-—Have the goodness to send me to the dungeon where my brother is in confinement, after having been acquitted on a charge of high treason in Ireland. At all events, will your Lordships order that my agent may be permitted to come to me?" The Court said they could make no order—their commission ended with the trial.

            O'Coigley on Wednesday, June 6, 1798, between four and five in the afternoon, received information that he was to die next day, without apparent emotion. He spent the evening very calmly. He had but one thing, he said, on his mind which created any anxiety; that was, an apprehension that he might be misrepresented after his death. He was anxious to be faithfully reported, and that was all he wanted. On Thursday, at a quarter past eleven o'clock, O'Coigley left the gaol. He was dressed all in black; his hair was cropped and powdered, his shirt-collar open, and he wore no neck-cloth. His elbows were tied behind with ropes, and over his shoulders was the rope with which he was executed. He stepped into the hurdle, and on his sitting down a chain was put round his waist to fasten him. The executioner sat opposite to him. He had nothing on his head. He continued all the way earnestly reading a prayer-book. Mr. Watson, the gaoler, followed the hurdle, which was surrounded by above 200 of the Maidstone Volunteers. The deputy sheriff, and the Rev. Mr. Griffiths followed. The whole was preceded by about 20 javelin-men. The hurdle was drawn up close in front of the gallows, on Penningdon-heath, and the horses were taken out. The military formed a small square. The prisoner being unchained, he rose up and stood in the hurdle, and read two prayers, one of them aloud in Latin. He then took out of his pocket an orange, and also a pen-knife, but being unable to cut the orange, from his hands being bound, he gave it to a friend, whom he beckoned to come near him, saying, "Open this orange with my pen-knife; it has been said, they would not trust a pen-knife, lest I should cut my throat; but they little knew that I would not deprive myself of the glory of dying in this way." He desired his friend to keep the pen-knife for his sake, and to hold the orange, several pieces of which he eat. After finishing his devotions, the clergy man gave him absolution, to whom he returned the prayer book; and having ascended the platform, he took farewell of the gaoler, thanking him for the many civilities he had shown him. On his being tied up to the gallows, he made the following speech: "I shall only here declare, that I am innocent of the charge for which I suffer. I never was in my life the bearer of any letter, or other paper or message, printed, written, or verbal, to the directory of France, nor to any person on their behalf; neither was I ever a member of the London Corresponding Society, or of any other political society in Great Britain; nor did I ever attend any of their meetings, public or private—so help me God! I know not whether I shall be believed here in what I say, but I am sure I shall be believed in the world to come. It can scarcely be supposed, that one like me, in this situation, going to eternity, before the most awful tribunal, would die with a falsehood in his mouth; and I do declare, by the hopes I confidently feel of salvation, and happiness in a future state, that my life is falsely and maliciously taken away by corrupt and base perjury, and subornation of perjury, in some cases proceeding from mistake, no doubt, but in others from design.—Almighty God forgive all my enemies!—I beg of you to pray that God will grant me grace—for I have many sins to answer for, but they are the sins of my private life, and not the charge for which I now die." (raising his voice) "Lord thave mercy on me, and receive my soul!" A white night-cap was then drawn over his face, and he made a signal by dropping a handkerchief. The board was then let down, as at Newgate, and he remained suspended for twelve or thirteen minutes; he was then taken down, the head taken off by a surgeon, and the executioner held up the head to the populace, saying, "This is the head of a Traitor!" Both head and body were then put into a shell, and buried at the foot of the gallows.


Previous   Next