Skip to main content

Uncurbed Desires and Heavenly Glory: Three Execution Narratives in the American Antiquarian Society Supplement to Early American Imprints

Posted on 04/13/2016

The March release of the American Antiquarian Society’s Supplement to Early American Imprints: Evans includes several accounts of men and women who were executed in the last decades of the 18th century. Each of these narratives appears to have been intended as a cautionary lesson. The three selected items below are but a small representation of such jailhouse conversions to Christianity found in Early American Imprints, Series I and II. 

The Adventures and Death of William M'Ilheney: Of the District of Ninety-Six in South-Carolina, who after a very Profligate life, was executed at Prince-Edward Court-House, in Virginia, on the 15th of October, 1789, with Frederic Briggs, and died a penitent (1792) 

Publisher William Glendinning, a “Preacher of the Gospel,” introduces the reader to William M’Ilheney in the first paragraph as a man whose 

whole wretched life and untimely death are here recorded, was born in Pennsylvania, about the year 1760. His parents were professors of religion, of the Presbyterian denomination, who took some pains to inform his mind pretty early in religious principles, and to restrain him by regular discipline, from the excesses of youth. 

Despite their best efforts, young William had “a very lively, active disposition, combined with a festive, sociable taste, [which] counteracted in some measure the pains that were taken with him, and sometimes hurried him impetuously into the follies of youth.”  

Glendinning perceives another contributing factor to William’s waywardness: 

The removal of his parents also, when he was but ten years old, from Pennsylvania, to the district of Ninety-six, in South Carolina, contributed to weaken the ties of a due subordination to parental authority, and of early habits imbibed in childhood. For that country is in general remarkable for dissipation, and a patulant [sic] forwardness in the youth, who through the effeminacy of their education, quickly learn to despise the parents who indulge them, and give a loose to their licentious uncurbed desires. 

There was political turmoil in South Carolina which the author describes as a civil war between the Whigs and the Tories. M’Ilheney sided with the Whigs and joined in some skirmishes with an eye to plunder.  

The confusion of the country, however, and the relaxed state of law and government, became a temptation to unprincipled minds. Vague, yet flattering hopes of riches, or at least of considerable property, without much trouble or delay, from the chances in war, roused and inflamed the mind of M’Ilheney…. 

He soon procured a better horse, and was very useful in burning, ravaging and destroying the property of the enemy. In the midst of such scenes, and associated with very profligate men, he quickly threw off all restraint, and gave himself up to all manner of wickedness…. 

By these dishonest methods, he had gathered a little property in the course of a few months, and renounced all ideas of living by labour. He dressed genteely, kept the company of rakish young gentlemen, drank hard, swore, gamed, and became a lewd debauchee. 

The narrative continues as the M’Ilheney joins with various likeminded men conducting numerous raids and pillages throughout the region. Near Savannah “they were daily engaged in plundering, harassing and slaughtering the Tories…”  He and his kindred spirits marauded as a way of life. 

They possessed themselves of great quantities of booty from time to time, and whilst it lasted they spent their time in rioting, lewdness and gaming—When their stock was expended they furnished themselves anew by the same iniquitous means, and thus in a round of rapine, ravage and excess, they hardened each other in impiety, and prepared themselves to be the nuisance of a settled, and peaceable state of society. 

M’Ilheney vacillated between his wicked ways, resolving to retire and live a quiet life. On occasions he was captured and made daring escapes. All in all “he proceeded on in his career with thoughtless indiscretion.” At one point he became gravely ill during which time “his former apprehensions of death and judgment returned with considerable force, and he resolved to spend the remainder of his days, if he should recover, in service of God. Providence put him to the proof of his sincerity, and permitted him to live; but alas! poor M’Ilheney soon forgot his vows and promises…” 

And so it went. Finally he was captured, put on trial, and condemned to die. While awaiting his execution he was constantly visited by men of the cloth and underwent a conversion. 

With streaming eyes, and earnestness of manner which denoted his sincerity, he acquitted God and man of blame; he charged himself with guilt and lamented his long course of iniquity… 

The author provides a final grace note: 

The sheriff’s officers being unacquainted with their business, as executioners; [M’Ilheney] showed them how to place the rope so as to dispatch most effectually—And having prepared himself with intrepidity, and indeed with the dignity of a penitent christian [sic] for the fatal moment, he was swung off—and in a few minutes appeared in the presence of his God, in the eternal world. 

A Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson: Who was executed at Chester, January 3d, 1786. Charged with the Murder of her Twin Infants. Containing some account of her Dying Sayings; with some serious Reflections. Drawn up at the request of a friend unconnected with the deceased (1786) 

The title page informs us that this imprint, like the previous one, was “Printed for William Glendinning, Preacher of the Gospel.” The account begins: 

On the third instant was executed here, pursuant to her sentence, Elizabeth Wilson; charged with the murder of her twin illegitimate infants, on the 12th of October, 1785. 

As the case of this woman is of a singular nature, has engrossed the public attention, and as there are various reports circulating respecting her, the following narrative, drawn up at the request of a person unconnected with her, may be acceptable at this time. 

Glendinning proceeds to introduce the possibility of Wilson’s innocence. 

She was brought to trial the last court of Oyer and Terminer, which commenced on the 17th of October last, before the honourable Judge Atlee. Circumstances were so strong against her, that she was brought in guilty, and received sentence of death. 

Before, at, and after her trial, she persisted in denying the fact; her behaviour was such, in general, as gave reasons to conclude she was innocent of the murder of which she was charged, or was an insensible, hardened creature, and did not expect to die for this crime. 

During her imprisonment, Elizabeth was frequently “visited by serious people of different religious denominations, and appeared amazingly ignorant respecting her spiritual state, until some time after she was sentenced, when many were much affected at the relation she gave of her religious exercises, and the apparent concern and distress of her mind. She said the dungeon was the happiest place she ever was in in her life.” 

The night before she was executed, Elizabeth made her confession. She was born “of honest, sober parents.” 

From sixteen to twenty-one years of age, I had a religious concern, but through the subtilty [sic] of Satan, and corruption of nature, was led away to the soul-destroying sin of fornication, which I believe to be my predominant evil. I had three children in an unlawful way before I fell into the wretched company of Joseph Deshong….he insinuated himself into my company, under pretence [sic] of courtship, declaring himself a single man, and by repeated promises of marriage deceived and persuaded me to consent to his unlawful embraces. In a short time after, I proved with child of the two dear innocents, for which I must shortly suffer an ignominious death. 

By her account the father of the twins told her “I have no money for you, nor your bastards neither.” 

He then requested me to take their dear lives, which I would by no means consent to, but requested him to let me have them, and I would beg for them. He then rose up, putting a pistol to my breast, forbidding me to make any noise; then he wickedly stamped on their dear little breasts, upon which the dear infants gave a faint scream and expired… 

At her execution, Elizabeth requested that her confession be read aloud which was done. She “appeared penitent, resigned, and engaged in prayer…” 

In her last moments she appeared perfectly calm and resigned; took an affectionate leave of the minister, no longer able to bear the sight, and said, “she hoped to meet him in a better world.” The moment before she was to be turned off, the sheriff asked her if with her dying breath she sealed the confession she had made? When she understood who spoke to her, she moved her hand and said: “I do, for it is the truth.” And in a moment was turned off, and quickly left the world, in exchange, we hope, for a better…. 

The day following she was decently interred, and a large number of respectable people attended her funeral. The minister that attended her in her last moments attended her to the grave. The exercise was solemn, a deep concern was conspicuous on the face of many, if not all that were present. 

Thus ended the life of Elizabeth Wilson, in the 27th year of her age; innocent, we believe, of the crime for which she suffered, but guilty in concealing, or rather attempting to conceal, a crime of so horrid a nature, which she was privy to. 

[An extraordinary account of Tobias Smith: a gipsy, who was executed at Bedford, April 3d, 1792. Published at the earnest request of himself, and many others who visited him in consinement. By Thomas Tattersall] (1792) 

Tobias Smith was born at Southwell in Bedfordshire, in 1773. His parents, James and Jemima Smith, are of that class of vagrants, called Gipsies, who procure a wretched livelihood by selling small articles from place to place, fortune telling, fiddling, and such kind of loose and unlawful practices. 

His mother, it seems, had some education in her youth; she lived several years in service, and afterwards took up with a gipsy. Some of her younger children can read and repeat the Lord’s prayer, creed, and ten commandments; but she complained that Tobias was so untractable [sic] a disposition, that he would never learn one letter or prayer. 

Tobias told the author that “the cause of his misfortunes, was the unhappy state his father and mother lived in, quarreling and fighting.” His father kicked him out of their home several times, and “forced him into other companies, where he was further corrupted, and persuaded to steal and plunder for a living.” 

The author first meets Tobias when he “was in the prison at Bedford, where he was committed in Nov. 1791, for stealing a mare out of a pasture at Staysden, the property of Mr. William Curtise, a farmer. He was tried at the Lent assizes 1792, before sir William Ashurst, and being found guilty, was condemned to be hanged; which was executed upon him April the third, near Bedford.” 

Not surprisingly, Tobias undergoes a conversion while awaiting his death. The author, Thomas Tattersall, engaged in effecting this, but says it wasn’t easy: 

O how hard it is to bring sinners to Jesus Christ; they will trust to any thing, rather than fly to the merciful arms and atoning blood of a crucified Saviour.  

But the efforts of Tattersall and others soon bore fruit: 

In my absence, Mr. Jeffries, visited the prisoners. Toby, said to him, “God has visited me, and blest me, at the time I thought I should die immediately; but since I was set at liberty (i.e. from the burden of guilt and fear of death.) I can pray to God constantly. 

Wednesday, Mr. Jeffries, asked, if he still prayed to God. “O yes, I can feast on Jesus Christ, who died to save poor sinners from hell! in the time of my distress, I felt as if God had pierced a nail into my heart: but, since he has blessed me, I can feast on his love. Before my heart was changed by the power of God, I was as bad as a dog; but now my heart dances for joy within me. My soul is like a bird, singing the praises of God in the air.” 

The narrative describes daily visits by the clergy to the condemned who became increasingly joyful looking forward to his death. “I am glad the day is come, I long to die, that I may see Jesus Christ.” To Tobias’s disappointment, his execution was several times delayed but he remained sanguine. “I can face death without fear, when I think how God puts his love in my heart, and of Jesus Christ my Saviour. I am so comfortable, so happy; no fear, all mildness and gladness. I cannot fear death. I long to die. I want to see the heavenly glory.” 

Tattersall records the final moments: 

He was then drawn to the fatal tree, where we shook hands, and parted, to meet no more till the resurrection of the dead. I believe the last words he spake, were “I am happy. God bless you. Farewell.” Thus died Tobias Smith, April 3, 1792, being little more than nineteen years of age, a miracle of grace. 

For more information about Early American Imprints, Series I and II: Supplements from the American Antiquarian Society, 1652-1819, including pricing, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

Stay in Touch

Receive product news, special offers and invitations, or the acclaimed Readex Report

Sign Up

By clicking "Sign Up", you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.