David Thompson Myers

Felonious, wicked and diabolical?

This article was winner of The Ted Gilberd Family History Award for the best family history article published in the The New Zealand Genealogist during 2020 (Vol 51, No. 385, October 2020).

When David Thompson MYERS¹ a draper in Ironmonger Street, Stamford, Lincolnshire advertised for two female servants in 1799² his future looked bright. A youthful escapade that turned to tragedy – when he accompanied his intoxicated cousin to the Bull Inn and George Myers had died falling from an upstairs window³ – was now in the past and he was about to settle into marriage with Phoebe CROW.⁴

 

In March 1808, however, David Myers was declared bankrupt.⁵ The lease was relinquished, the stock and household furniture auctioned, and his creditors received a dividend of five shillings in the pound. His wife started a millinery and dress-making business in St Paul’s Street,⁶ and two years later they had traded their way back from these financial difficulties.

But further trouble was to follow. On 26 Jul 1811, the Stamford Mercury reported on the Peterborough quarter sessions: "A true bill was found against Thomas SNOW, jun, for an assault on D. T. Myers". Thomas Snow, the son of a long-serving burgess and former Mayor, was in the home furnishings business on the corner of High Street and Ironmonger Street. Why Snow assaulted Myers is not stated, but the Quarter Session papers are clear on the severity of the assault: "Thomas Snow, the younger, of St. Michael in Stamford, upholsterer, did make an assault on David Thompson Myers and beat, wounded and ill-treated David Thompson Myers so that his life was greatly despaired of".⁷

Two months later, before the case had been heard, a possible motive for the assault emerged when the Stamford Mercury reported: "D. T. Myers, draper, charged on the oath of Thomas CROW, apprentice to Mr HORDEN, tailor, with the commission of an unnatural offence".⁸

 

The Quarter Session papers provide more detail: "David Thompson Myers did commit sodomy or assault with intent to commit sodomy upon Thomas Crow... about thrice a week in a close at the top of Paul Street in the borough about 9 o'clock in the evening...criminal intercourse, penetration and emission within the informant Thomas Crow".⁹ The case was considered so serious that it was sent up to the Assize Court at Lincoln.

The Stamford Mercury gave a lengthy report of the trial.¹⁰ Thomas Crow was not considered a sufficiently reliable witness – a journeyman colleague said Crow had "the general character of common liar" and his employer also declared "he had reason to suspect his honesty, his veracity, and integrity". The only support for Crow's evidence was that of Thomas WILSON, the landlord of the White Horse in Empingham, Rutland, who confirmed Crow's account of walking five miles through the snow with Myers to his establishment and drinking there on Sunday 6th January 1811. What is not clear is the age of Thomas Crow. He was described as "a bad base boy", a "young man", and a "lad". One London newspaper stated that Crow was eighteen years old.¹¹ Was it more than a coincidence that Phoebe Myers’ brother, born in 1786, was also named Thomas Crow?

Myers was acquitted at Lincoln for lack of evidence but was immediately taken to Peterborough to be charged with a similar offence committed in the neighbouring county of Northamptonshire. The indictment reads: "…that David Thompson Myers…in the Liberty of Peterborough in the county of Northampton, Draper, not having the fear of God before his eyes, nor regarding the order of Nature, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the thirtieth day of May in the fifty-first year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third…with force and Arms…in the Liberty and County aforesaid, feloniously and wickedly in and upon one Thomas Crow then and there being did make and Assault and then and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature had a venereal affair with the said Thomas Crow, and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature carnally knew the said Thomas Crow, and with him the said Thomas Crow then and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature did commit and perpetrate the detestable and abominable Crime of Buggery (among Christians not to be named) To the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal and disgrace of all mankind, against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace of our said Lord the King his Crown and Dignity".¹²

The jurors found for 'a true bill' – in other words, there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial. Quarter sessions’ record books document the essential details and outcome of a case; they do not stand as full trial records. Other details relating to sessions cases, including any witness statements, are normally found in the sessions’ files – but there are no surviving files for 1812.

Myers pleaded not guilty, but this time Mr Horden and his son testified they saw Myers and Crow leaving Burghley Park where this alleged offence took place.¹³ The jury of twelve "good and lawful men" retired, and in less than five minutes returned a verdict of guilty. The sentence recorded was: "Whereupon it is considered ordered and awarded by the Court here that the said David Thompson Myers, be taken from hence to the place from whence he came, and from thence to the usual place of Execution, there to be hanged by the Neck until his Body shall be dead".¹⁴ Myers was described as "horror-struck" at the verdict.¹⁵

This was the time of England’s ‘Bloody Code’. Between 1770 and 1830, an estimated 35,000 people were condemned to death – although 80% were later reprieved by the King’s prerogative of mercy and sent to prison hulks or transported. By 1820, more than two hundred capital crimes were on the statute books and two-thirds of those hanged were for property crimes such as burglary, robbery, stealing and forgery.¹⁶ Between 1805 and 1832, fifty men were hanged for sodomy but court proceedings for 'unnatural crimes' were considered abhorrent and deleted from the Home Office records.¹⁷

David’s uncle, the Rev. John Myers (father of the unfortunate George and also a magistrate for the West Riding of Yorkshire), petitioned the Prince Regent for mercy but the answer received from Whitehall dated 27th April was a flat refusal: "His Royal Highness has not been moved to signify any commands for altering the sentence which has been passed upon the prisoner".¹⁸

Myers was held in Abbot’s Gaol next to the Peterborough Cathedral (where both Katherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots had been buried). Dr John Coakley LETTSON described the prison in 1805: "A small court 21 yards by 7 with a pump and necessary in it. Three dungeons about four yards square each, two of them are four steps below ground and the third two steps, with stone floors and no fireplaces, built under the arches of the old Minster. One of these dungeons is called the gaol-room and the window being stopped up, there is only an iron grated aperture in the door, 10 inches by 7, for the admission of light and air. The other two dungeons have each an iron grating over the door. The boards on which the prisoners sleep are raised two feet above the floor, which would otherwise be very damp, there being no fireplace. The Soke allows straw, two blankets and a rug to each prisoner".¹⁹

Abbot’s Gaol, Peterborough. The condemned cell where D. T. Myers was held before his execution was probably the narrow boarded window on the left. (Photo credit: Peterborough Civic Society).

Abbot's Gaol.jpg

On Thursday 30 April, Myers saw his wife for the last time. "She is said with almost frantic vehemence to have entreated on her knees, that he would bring no wife, no mother, into the depth of misery which she endured, by disclosing the names of those who had been associates in his horrid crime".²⁰ As the Stamford Mercury had already published Thomas Crow’s name in accounts of the trial, did this indicate a family connection or were others involved? The Nottingham Journal gave a different perspective: "his feelings for her and a family of six children were of the most tender description. He entreated, before leaving the prison to proceed to the gibbet that the last letter he received from his wife, with a copy of his reply to it, might be laid on his breast when stretched out in his coffin and be consigned to the earth with his body".²¹

On the Sunday before the execution, the condemned sermon – an opportunity for the more genteel members of society to gaze upon the prisoner – was preached before the crowded Cathedral congregation, despite having been advised that Myers would not attend public worship "as it would only tend to disturb his mind, which, owing to the unremitted attention of the Rev. Mr PRATT, is now in a frame suited to his awful situation".²² The Rev. Joseph Stephen Pratt, Vicar of Peterborough, received the sum of ten guineas for his attendance upon Myers.²³

At quarter-past eleven on Monday 4 May 1812, Myers was conveyed in a post-chaise to the place of execution, the Peterborough Common, locally known as Butcher’s Piece, against the North Bank, Fengate.²⁴ According to the Stamford Mercury, "he declared that that was the happiest moment he had experienced for 14 years",²⁵ – presumably a reference to his marriage in 1799? The hearse, containing the coffin, which had been placed with him in his cell during Sunday night, went before him, in full sight. The procession moved slowly amidst a crowd of 5,000-6,000 spectators, almost twice the population of Peterborough, taking half an hour to reach the gallows. The Common probably had the atmosphere of a fairground with orange-sellers, pie-men, pickpockets, and gingerbread vendors. Taverns would open early and broadsheet-hawkers chanted the "last dying words" as soon as the drop had fallen – printed copies could be purchased for a halfpenny as souvenirs.

This broadsheet of ‘The Last Dying Words, Behaviour and Confession of D. T. Myers,’ uses somewhat formulaic euphemisms (such as ‘launched into eternity’) and antiquated woodcut illustrations common to these artefacts. Myers’ dying speech was probably composed for him by Rev. Pratt. (British Library, Public Domain).

The Last Dying Words of David Thomas Myers.jpg

Sex between men was a capital offence in England until 1861, but the last execution for sodomy occurred in 1835. After this date death sentences were commuted.²⁶ The biggest crowds assembled at hangings were for crimes of murder and sodomy or villains of higher social standing. The call of "hats off" when the felon appeared on the platform and sudden silence was a mark of deference for their final moments but also ensured the crowd was able to see and hear the proceedings. Myers’ execution was described in newspapers throughout England: "He ascended the platform firmly, and his face seemed composed and even cheerful. He looked around amongst the immense crowd and addressed several whom he knew. To a boy, the son of a neighbour, he said, 'Goodbye William' then knelt down, and joined the Minister in a prayer composed for his use during his confinement — He concluded with the Lord's Prayer, which he repeated in a strain of affecting devotion. He said few words to the people, confessing his crime, and exhorting them. Whilst the executioner was putting the rope round his neck, he with much coolness assisted in opening the collar of his shirt. The nightcap was put his head; he then threw down the skin of an orange which he had been sucking, and pulled the cap over his face with his own hands, exclaiming as he did so, "Now is my last curtain drawn!" The executioner left him — undrew the bolts that supported the drop, and precipitated the unhappy man into eternity. He appeared to die without a struggle, merely clasping his hands together. The surrounding multitude were much affected; many of them left the ground before the awful conclusion of the ceremony took place, unable to witness it".²⁷

The Stamford Mercury published a more moralistic account, omitting the inferences to Myers’ humanity: "Whilst the officer drew the cap over his eyes, he was heard fervently to repeat the last line of a hymn which had been composed for him, and which he had taken great delight in singing—'Lord, remember me!' The fall of the drop in a few moments after, placed him beyond the bounds of mortality: he seemed to be dead almost the instant after the descent of the scaffold".²⁸

The cap was to lessen public squeamishness; hiding the victim’s protruding tongue and distorted features as they convulsed and choked – ‘dancing on the end of a rope’– sometimes with the hangman pulling on the legs to hasten the process. It seems unlikely that Myers died as quickly and peacefully as described – the longer rope and hangman’s calculations based on weight were not adopted until the 1880s.²⁹

 

Many executed criminals were buried within the grounds of the gaol where they had been imprisoned but Myers’ corpse was spared dissection or gibbeting (which occurred up until 1832) and received a Christian burial in the churchyard of St John’s, Peterborough on 6 May 1812.³⁰

In June, Rev. John Myers launched a public appeal on behalf of Phoebe Myers, kicking it off with £100: "For many years [D.T Myers’] industrious and amiable wife has been struggling to gain subsistence for her children, and the fruits of her exertions have been squandered as soon acquired, by her unhappy companion. If his ignominious death has relieved his family from disgrace and a burthen, it has left them bowed down into the dust affliction, and utterly unable to raise themselves from their prostrate state without assistance".³¹ This affecting plea raised about £250 for Phoebe and her six children. She continued the drapery business, advertising a fashionable assortment of ladies' dresses, millinery, muffs and tippets, until 1831 when her eldest son, the Rev Charles Myers, inherited his great-uncle John’s estate.

Rev John Myers.jpg

Rev. John Myers (1739-1821) was David’s uncle. A man, who, from a low beginning, amassed a large fortune (his second wife, Catherina FOX, was worth £20,000). "In his convivial hours, when the number of his wives were mentioned, he used to jocosely say 'If I survive, I will have five.'" (Lancaster Gazette, 5 May 1821).

In an ironic twist of fate, Thomas Snow was declared bankrupt in 1815.³² He had been given ‘leave to execute the sad office’ of making his friend George TATAM’s coffin when he was seized with a fit of epilepsy and expired. "The two friends were the sons of two Aldermen in this Corporation, were of the same age, Tatam being the elder only by three months, were in the same line of business, and for 30 years of their lives were opposite neighbours and most intimate acquaintance. Their companionship was the convivial kind, and each, we believe, was too confident of his own strength for the health of the other".³³

There is no record of Thomas Snow being held to account for his assault on Myers and although David Thompson Myers may have been the black sheep of the family, I take the view my great-great-great-great-grandfather was also a lamb to the slaughter.

 

Notes

  1. Born in 1771, in a settlement of 1781, his grandfather had bequeathed ‘to David the son of Rev. David Myers, late of Gretford, Lincs, clerk deceased: the sum of one shilling.’

  2. Stamford Mercury, 12 April 1799.

  3. Stamford Coroner’s Records 1791/1/3.

  4. The marriage of David Thompson Myers and Phoebe Crow took place in Cambridge, 2 May 1799.

  5. Stamford Mercury, 18 March 1808.

  6. Stamford Mercury, 21 October 1808.

  7. Stamford Quarter Sessions – Midsummer Session Papers 20 July 1811.

  8. Stamford Mercury, 27 September 1811.

  9. Stamford Quarter Sessions – Michaelmas Session Papers 12 October 1811.

  10. Stamford Mercury, 13 March 1812. The National Archives only hold Lincolnshire Assize records from 1818.

  11. The Statesman (London), 17 April 1812.

  12. Peterborough Quarter Sessions record book 1812 – 1823 (ML740).

  13. The Statesman (London), 14 April 1812.

  14. Peterborough Quarter Sessions record book 1812 – 1823 (ML740).

  15. The Statesman (London), 14 April 1812.

  16. Gatrell, V.A.C.,The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (1994) p 7.

  17. Gatrell, p 49.

  18. Home Office Papers HO13 Piece 23, pages 36-37.

  19. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 97, Jan 1805, p 4.

  20. Stamford Mercury, 8 May 1812.

  21. Nottingham Journal, 16 May 1812.

  22. Stamford Mercury, 1 May 1812.

  23. Peterborough Thomas á Beckett Sessions record book 1812 – 1823 (ML740).

  24. Percival, A., Notes on Old Peterborough (1905).

  25. Stamford Mercury, 8 May 1812.

  26. Pride of Place: England's LGBTQ Heritage https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/law-and-oppression/

  27. Cheltenham Chronicle, 14 May 1812.

  28. Stamford Mercury, 8 May 1812.

  29. Gatrell, p 54.

  30. MYERS Peterborough NTH 1812 Burial 1.CDS.015 St John’s Peterborough Burials 1807-1878.

  31. Stamford Mercury, 5 June 1812.

  32. Stamford Mercury, 13 January 1815.

  33. Stamford Mercury, 20 January 1815.

 

See my post about this startling discovery for the British Newspaper Archive Blog

http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2012/05/04/when-a-skeleton-can-cans-its-way-out-of-the-ancestral-cupboard/

 

Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Lord, Remember Me!", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, enlarged 7 Dec. 2014 http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1812myer.htm

An article by Steven Dryden at the British Library.

More research about D.T. Myers by Chris Adams: https://www.chradams.co.uk/lincsfamilies/myers/dtmyers.html

his son, George David Myers: https://www.chradams.co.uk/lincsfamilies/myers/gdmyers.html

and grandson, Dr Charles John Myers: https://www.chradams.co.uk/lincsfamilies/myers/drcjm.html