Commonly called "John the Painter," an Incendiary, who aimed at the Destruction of the Nation. Executed at Portsmouth, 10th of March, 1777
Hill setting fire to the rope-house in Portsmouth Dockyard
SO dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed, and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.
James Hill, that universally detested character, during thc progress of his public ruin and desolation, had gone by several names -- a plan generally adopted in a long course of villainy.
He was once a journeyman to Mr Golden, a painter, at Titchfield, whence he procured the familiar title of "John the Painter." During a residence of some years in America he imbibed principals destructive to the interests of this country. Transported with party zeal, he formed the desperate resolution of committing a most atrocious crime, which he, in some degree, effected. About four o'clock in the afternoon of the 7th of December, 1776, a fire broke out in the roundhouse of Portsmouth Dock, which entirely consumed that building. The fire was wholly attributed to accident; but on the 5th of January three men, who were employed in the hemp-house, found a tin machine, somewhat resembling a tea-canister, and near the same spot a wooden box containing various kinds of com- bustibles. This circumstance being communicated to the commissioner of the dock, and circulated among the public, several vague and indefinite suspicions fell upon Hill, who had been lurking about the dockyard, whose surname was not known, but who had been distinguished by the appellation of "John the Painter."
In consequence of advertisements in the newspapers, offering a reward of fifty pounds for apprehending him, he was secured at Odiham. On the 17th of February the prisoner was examined at Sir John Fielding's office, Bow Street, where John Baldwin, who exercised the trade of a painter in different parts of America, attended, by the direction of Lord Temple. The prisoner's discourse with Baldwin operated very materially towards his conviction, as it was brought in corroboration of a variety of evidence on the trial. He said he had taken a view of most of the dockyards and fortifications about England, with the number of ships in the navy, and observed their weight of metal and their number of men, and had been to France two or three times to inform Silas Dean, the American, of his discoveries; and that Dean gave him bills to the amount of three hundred pounds and letters of recommendation to a merchant in the City, which he had burned, lest they should lead to a discovery. He informed Baldwin that he had instructed a tinman's apprentice at Canterbury to make him a tin canister, which he carried to Portsmouth, where he hired a lodging at one Mrs Boxall's, and tried his preparations for setting fire to the dockyard.
After recounting the manner of preparing matches and combustibles he said that on the 6th of the preceding December he got into the hemp-house, and having placed a candle in a wooden box, and a tin canister over it, and sprinkled turpentine over some of the hemp, he proceeded to the rope-house, where he placed a bottle of turpentine among a quantity of loose hemp, which he sprinkled with turpentine, and having laid matches, made of paper painted over with powdered charcoal and gunpowder diluted with water, and other combustibles about the place, he returned to his lodgings. These matches were so contrived as to continue burning for twenty-four hours, so that by cutting them into proper lengths he provided for his escape, knowing the precise time when the fire would reach the combustibles. He had hired lodgings in other two houses, to which he intended to set fire, that the engines might not be all employed together in quenching the conflagration at the dock.
On the 7th he again went to the hemp-house, intending to set it on fire, which he, however, was unable to effect, owing to a halfpennyworth of common house matches that he had bought not being sufficiently dry. This disappointment, he said, rendered him exceedingly uneasy, and he went from the hemp-house to the rope-house and set fire to the matches he had placed there. He said his uneasiness was increased because he could not return to his lodging, where he had left a bundle containing an "Ovid's Metamorphoses," a treatise on war and making fireworks, a "Justin," a pistol and a French passport, in which his real name was inserted.
When he had set fire to the rope-house he proceeded toward London, deeply regretting his failure in attempting to fire the other building, and was strongly inclined to fire into the windows of the woman who had sold him the bad matches. He jumped into a cart, and gave the woman who drove it sixpence, to induce her to drive quickly, and when he had passed the sentinels observed the fire to have made so rapid a progress that the elements seemed in a blaze. He might have added, with Chaos to the Devil,
"Havoc, and spoil, and ruin, are my gain."
About ten the next morning he arrived at Kingston, where he remained until the dusk of the evening, and proceeded to London in the stage. Soon after his arrival he waited upon the gentleman in the city, and informed him of having been under the necessity of burning the bills upon, and letters to, him from Silas Dean. The gentleman behaved to him with shyness, but appointed to meet him at a coffee-house. At the coffee-house the gentleman seemed to be doubtful as to the story told by Hill, who therefore went away displeased, and as soon as he reached Hammersmith wrote to the merchant, saying he was going to Bristol, and that the "handy works he meant to perform there would be soon known to the public." A short time after his arrival at Bristol he set fire to several houses, which were all burning with great rapidity at one time, and the flames were not extingruished till damage was sustained to the amount of fifteen thousand pounds. He also set fire to combustibles that he had placed among a number of oil barrels upon the quay, but, happily, without effect. He related to Baldwin a great number of other circumstances, which were confirmed by a variety of evidence on his trial, which came on on Thursday, 6th of March, 1777, at Winchester Castle, when witnesses were produced from different parts of the country, who proved the whole of his confession to Baldwin to be true.
When called upon for his defence, he complained of the newspapers and reports circulated to his prejudice; and observed that it was easy for such a man as Baldwin to feign the story he had told, and for a number of witnesses to be collected to give it support.
He declared that God alone knew whether he was, or was not, the person who set fire to the dock-yard of his Britannic Majesty at Portsmouth; and begged it might be attended to, how far Baldwin ought to be credited: that if he had art enough, by lies, to insinuate anything out of him, his giving it to the knowledge of others was a breach of confidence; and if he would speak falsely to deceive him, he might also impose upon a jury. Upon this head the prisoner, with some ingenuity, dwelt for some time, and concluded by begging the judge to repeat his defence in proper terms to the jury, as he was not endowed with the gift of oratory, which they might easily perceive.
The prisoner had no counsel.
The jury, after a clear and impartial charge from Baron Hotham, in an instant agreed upon their verdict -- Guilty.
The learned judge then proceeded to pass the sentence of the law upon the prisoner. He told him that he had a long and fair trial; that he had been found guilty on the fullest and clearest evidence; that he could not have any thing to complain of in the candour of the Court, and that his crime was of a nature so enormous, that it was not in the power of words to aggravate it.
The judge then said that he would not increase the prisoner's present unhappy moments, nor add to his distress, by dwelling upon the horrors attending the crime of which he was convicted; but was sorry to say that he felt, he feared, much more for him than his appearances bespoke him feeling for himself: yet would he earnestly recommend him to consider his case, and prepare to meet his God; for that he was bound -- and it was by much the most disagreeable part of his duty -- to pass the sentence of the law upon him; and he accordingly adjudged him to be hanged by the neck until he was dead. Further, he said, he thought it right to advise him, that, as his offence was of such a nature as might not only have proved fatal to every person present, but have involved the whole British nation in universal ruin, there was not any probability of his receiving mercy; and concluded by strongly urging the prisoner to repentance, and preparation for that pardon in the world to come which upon earth could not he granted to him.
He was allowed for this purpose four days, and suffered at Portsmouth on March 10, 1777, in sight of the ruins which he had occasioned.
His body, for several years, hung in chains on Blockhouse Point, on the opposite side of the harbour to the town.
To these particulars we shall present his confession. On the morning after his condemnation he informed the turnkey, of his own spontaneous accord, that he felt an earnest desire of confessing his crime, and laying the history of his life before the public; and that, by discovering the whole of his unaccountable plots and treasonable practices, he might make some atonement for the wrongs he had done, of which he was now truly sensible and a repentant sinner.
This request being made known to the Earl of Sandwich, then first Lord of the Admiralty, that nobleman directed Sir John Fielding to send down the proper persons to take and attest his confession.
He began by saying that he was by birth a Scotchman, and had left Scotland in order to embark for America, where he resided the greater part of his life. The diabolical scheme of setting fire to the dock-yards and the shipping, he said, originated in his own wicked mind, on the very breaking out of the rebellion in America; and he had no peace until he proceeded to put it in practice. The more he thought of it, the more practicable it appeared; and with this wicked intent he crossed again the great Atlantic.
He had no sooner landed than he began to take surveys of the different dock-yards; which done, he went to Paris, and had several conferences with Silas Dean, the rebel minister to the court of France.
Dean (as well indeed he might) was astonished at Hill's proposals, which embraced the destruction of the English dock-yards and the shipping.
Finding the projector an enthusiast in the cause of America, and a man of daring spirit, he gradually listened to his schemes; and such was the enmity of the first Congress to the mother country, that Dean supplied this traitor with money, to enable him to carry them into execution; procured him a French passport; and gave him a letter of credit on a merchant in London, who, as we have already observed, escaped detection.
He then confirmed the evidence given against him, and in particular his confessions to Baldwin. He was, he further declared, to have been rewarded by a commission in the American army for setting fire to the dock-yard at Plymouth; and fully admitted the justice of his sentence for a crime so heinous.