Daniel Cohen wrote that one of the earlier writers of the "new fiction" in late-eighteenth-century New England dismissively referred to the old standards of American Puritan literature as "funeral discourse [,] the last words and dying [speech] of … Levi Ames and some dreary somebody's Day of Doom" (1993, p. 33). However, this perspective represents a profound misunderstanding of the significance of the execution literature in general and the last words and dying speech of Ames in particular. The execution of Ames, a twenty-one-year-old free African American man from Groton, Massachusetts, hanged on a sunny autumn day in 1773, transformed him from a mere cat burglar to an icon of the American Revolution. His life, crimes, and execution were recorded in pamphlet form—one of a number of pamphlets collectively referred to as execution literature—and became a best seller of the time.
SLAVE MARKET OF AMERICA
The 1836 broadside Slave Market of America, published in New York by the American Anti-Slavery Society, was remarkable—exceptional, in fact—not only for its large size (over 25 inches tall by 19 inches wide), but also for its detail and arrangement. The first row visually established the contradiction indicated in its subtitle—The Land of the Free/The Home of the Oppressed—especially in the scene of African Americans in a slave coffle singing, Hail, Columbia! Happy Land to the group of congressmen descending from the steps of the Capitol. The second row zoomed in on two public jails in the District of Columbia—built and maintained under congressional jurisdiction with federal taxpayers' money—in which people of color were incarcerated and subsequently sold when they could not prove their free status. The third row depicted two commercial slave trading firms operating in the federal district. The text described the facts of these scenes and made the argument that citizens of nonslaveholding states, as federal taxpayers, had the right to interfere by pressuring their congressmen to end slavery in the federal Capitol. This broadside, part of the massive pamphlet and petition campaigns of 1835 and 1836, attacked the slave trade in particular because abolitionists saw the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause as a tool for hampering the interstate slave trade and thus crippling slavery itself. In response, proslavery legislators in 1836 successfully imposed a gag rule on antislavery petitions, effectively silencing congressional debate on slavery until 1844, when the gag rule was repealed.
Slave Market of America. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836.
The term execution literature refers to several different types of texts written on the occasion of the execution of both free and enslaved men, women, and children for various capital offenses and collected in pamphlet form. They include dying verse—a poem or hymn written on the occasion of the execution of a criminal; last words—an account of the life and crimes of the condemned advertised as being taken from the condemned's own lips before he is put to death; and execution sermons—sermons delivered before a church community shortly before the event of an execution. These pamphlets reveal a great deal about the life of African Americans and the type and topics of literature that were popular in the Northeast at this time. Although Puritans and their descendants used these pamphlets for religious and social instruction, they were widely distributed to the general public.
The Puritan worldview was a deeply religious one. They believed themselves to be the New Hebrews and modeled their religious and social life after that of the biblical Hebrews. God was an angry God, ready to punish, chasten, and smite any who defied His will. Puritans took seriously Psalm 7:11-12, "God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. If [the wicked] turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready." As a result, Puritans lived their lives with optimistic hesitancy. They were not to be overly concerned with earthly affairs. Instead, they concerned themselves with pleasing God.
According to Puritans, the majority of the population was preserved from committing exceptionally wicked acts by God's restraining grace; nevertheless, the Puritan dedicated his or her life to avoiding God's wrath, on earth and in the hereafter. If one person disobeyed God's law without contrition, not only did he put his soul at risk, but he also endangered the entire community. Therefore the individual and the community were dedicated to keeping the faithful as near to the spirit and practice of the religious view as possible. Private sins, covetousness, neglecting daily prayer, and telling lies were recorded daily in the individual Puritan's diary. The Puritan diary was kept for the purpose of identifying sin in a person's life and eradicating it. Puritans spent a great deal of time monitoring not only their own behavior, but also the behavior of others, which, they believed, would protect the community from God's wrath.
Execution sermons were written and delivered by various prominent pastors of New England, including men descended from the earliest white families of Boston. Cotton Mather and his father Increase presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Mather Byles, author of a sermon delivered before Levi Ames' execution, was Cotton Mather's nephew.
The majority of execution texts, exclusive of sermons, were written by unnamed amanuenses. For instance, the author of The Confession of John Battus, an enslaved man executed for raping a young white woman then murdering her by beating her with a rock, refers to him- or herself as simply "The Editor." Battus's Confession is written in the first person and his Writings, a collection of letters Battus wrote to various acquaintances and attached to the Confession, mention that Battus's narrative "was corrected and published at his special request by the Editor of his 'Confession'" (1804, p. 15). Battus's Writings were "published … verbatim … [A]ltho many tautologies and superfluous repetitions are expunged; bad orthography and other parts of grammer [sic] corrected; and some instances of stile improved." However, the author of Pomp's last words is identified as Jonathan Plummer Jr., a Boston publisher.
Most dying verses were written by unnamed persons, although the texts are written in the first person. Following The Execution Hymn Composed on Levi Ames is a dying verse titled Christian Exercises and Dying Soliliquy credited to Ames. In The Life, Last Words and Dying Speech of Levi Ames, Ames admitted he stole "some chalk" as a child, and in The Speech of Death to Levi Ames Death chides Ames because he "took small pains to learn to read." However, scholars are not entirely convinced Ames wrote this poem himself. The Execution Hymn Composed on Levi Ames was authored by the Reverend Elhanan Winchester. The hymn is the only verse that does not mention Ames in the body at all. Instead, the writer of the introduction explained that the hymn was "sung to [Ames] and a considerable audience at the Prison, on Tuesday Evening, the 19th of October, and, at the desire of the Prisoner, will be sung at the Place of Execution."
Production and Distribution of Texts
After the sermon was delivered, and the criminal executed, execution sermons were printed in pamphlet form and distributed to the population. The sermon's title page informed the reader of the subject of the sermon even before he or she read the title. In some cases, the title first mentions the specific chapter and verse pastors used as their text. Not surprisingly, pastors selected biblical verses that addressed the importance of conversion and obedience to head the texts. Samuel Stillman, one of several pastors who wrote sermons for Ames, in his second sermon was inspired by Proverbs 17:25: "A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that b[ore] him." Other title pages emphasized the fact that the Gospel was written for all humankind and that redemption was possible for even the most abandoned. Stillman took as his text Psalms 102:19 and 20: "For [H]e hath looked down from the height of [H]is sanctuary; from heaven did the LORD behold the earth; To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death[…]" Samuel Mather's sermon was taken rather immodestly from Luke 4:18: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised."
Some dying speeches, printed separately from execution sermons, were printed as book-length texts. Others were printed as chapbooks. A chapbook is a type of pamphlet distributed by "chapmen," or traveling salesmen. These chapbooks contained items of eighteenth-century popular culture, songs, stories, or events available for the citizens to read, such as Cato's Confession, written on the occasion of a sixteen-year-old enslaved boy's execution for bludgeoning his young mistress, throwing her down the stairs, and pushing her face first into a fire. Chapbooks were extremely popular during the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century broadsides or broadsheets—large, page-long texts written on one side of the page—gained popularity as well. Dying words were often printed as broadsides, as were the speeches of John Bailey and Mark. Both texts were very large, approximately one foot by two feet. These broadsides were designed for a wide readership and were sold cheaply.
Other broadsides had advertisements appended to them. Jonathan Plummer, Jr. appended the following advertisements to Pomp's Dying Confession: An advertisement for someone searching for "100 junk bottles" or "[a]ny person wanting a few dollars at any time," "Love-letters in prose" … for the aim of gaining the object beloved" … to be "published on the shortest notice." In yet another advertisement appeared an individual's claim to be able to cure "[a] certain secret disorder privately and expeditiously."
Dying verses were also published as broadsides. These verse broadsides were sold cheaply as well. The price of the broadsheet of the dying verse of "John Battis [sic], A Mulatto, aged 19 Years …" was four cents. Texts were disseminated in a variety of ways. Daniel Cohen wrote that Cotton Mather published and gave away copies of his sermons to his parishioners. The broadside was also sold by traveling salesmen; for example, Life, Last Words and Dying Confession of John Bailey, about a black man who was executed, was published as a broadside, to which was appended an advertisement for Ezekiel Russell's publishing company. Texts were "cheap to Travelling Traders, Town-Flys etc.—Where also may be [sold?] cheap by the thousand, hundred gross, [tens?], or single." In addition, publishers sold the texts at their presses. Boston publishers John Kneeland, A. Ellison, and Ezekiel Russell sold copies on Milk Street, "in Marlborough Street" and "next to the cornfield [on] Union Street," respectively. Printers tried to publish their work as soon as possible and, in one case, three different published sermons delivered on the occasion of Ames' execution were listed in the same small advertisement.
Bailey, John. Life, Last Words and Dying Confession of John Bailey, A Black Man. Boston, 1790.
Battus, John. The Confession of John Battus, A Mulatto, Aged 19 years and 7 Months. Deadham, MA, 1804.
Cato. The Life and Confessions of Cato, A Slave of Elijah Mount…. Johnstown, NY, 1803.
Cohen, Daniel. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: With Related Documents, ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2003.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Gutman, Herbert George. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. New York: Vintage, 1977.
Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Mather, Samuel. Christ Sent to Heal the Broken Hearted. A Sermon Preached at the Thursday Lecture in Boston, on October 21st 1773 When Levi Ames, a Young Man under a Sentence of Death for Burglary Was Present to Hear the Discourse. Boston: Russell, 1773; Boston, M'Alpine, 1773.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
On John Battis [sic], A Mulatto, aged 19 Years, who is to be Executed THIS DAY, at Dedham, for the inhuman murder of Miss Salome Talbot, of Canton, Aged 13 Years, which was Perpetrated in that Town on the 28th of June. Dedham, MA, 1804.
Plummer Jr., Jonathan. The Dying Confession of Pomp, a Negro man who was executed at Ipswich on the 6th, August 1791 … taken from the mouth of the prisoner by Jonathan Plummer, Jun. Newburyport, MA, 1795.
Stillman, Samuel. Two Sermons: The First from Psalm CII. 19, 20. Delivered the Lords-Day Before the Execution of Levi Ames. Who was Executed at Boston, Thursday October 21 for Burglary AET, 22. This Discourse was Preached at the Desire of the Criminal, who also attended on the Occasion. The Second from Proverbs xvii 25. Preached the Lords-Day after his Execution; and designed as an Improvement on that awful Event, by way of Caution to Others. Boston: Russell and Ellison, 1773; Boston: Kneeland and Freeman, 1773 2nd and 4th editions.
Winchester, Elhanan. The Execution Hymn Composed on Levi Ames. Boston, 1773.
Tanya M. Mears