The unhappy man, whose memoirs it is our present task to record, was a native of the city of Glasgow, in North Britain. He was scarcely arrived to manhood when he travelled to London; and for several years he carried a pack about the country, retailing different sorts of goods; but linen was the principal article in which he dealt. He was naturally of an industrious disposition; and his industry procured him success. He made overtures of marriage to a young woman who had two uncles possessed of considerable property; and knowing that they intended to give her a marriage portion, and to make her their heir, he gained credit for a large assortment of linen drapery goods, and opened a warehouse on Fish Street Hill, with a view of giving himself consequence with his intended bride and her wealthy relatives. The young woman's relations, believing Alexander to be in flourishing circumstances, gave their consent to the marriage, which was in a short time solemnized; and soon afterwards he connected himself in partnership with a linen-draper in Holborn, named Nicol, who was a man of unblemished integrity, but encumbered with a numerous family and some pecuniary embarrassments.
Mr. Nicol being perfectly conversant in the wholesale branch of the linen trade, it was agreed that he should travel to Manchester, Glasgow, and other places, for the purpose of purchasing goods. Alexander kept the circumstance of his partnership a profound secret from his wife's relations; but, after he had obtained from them several considerable sums, the matter was divulged in the following manner:—One of his wife's uncles happened to be in Alexander's counting-house, when a bill was brought for acceptance, payable by Alexander and Nicol. Hereupon the gentleman upbraided Alexander for concealing from him so material a circumstance as that of his being connected in partnership: the other declared that no partnership subsisted; that Nicol was no more than his servant, and had inserted his own name in the draft either through mistake or villainy. Mr. Nicol returned to London in about two months, when Alexander denied his having a right to part of the business, and said he would submit the decision of the case to the Court of Chancery. Though articles of co-partnership had been regularly executed, Mr. Nicol was averse to involving himself in an expensive suit of law, which he feared his circumstances would not enable him to support; and therefore he declined engaging in a tedious contention with a man who had treated him in so injurious a manner.
The difference between Nicol and Alexander took place in the summer of 1765; and about eight months afterwards the latter, who had quitted his house on Fish Street Hill, and opened a warehouse in Tooley Street, Southwark, failed to the amount of about sixty thousand pounds; and it was then publicly known that he was the principal of a great number of retail shops established in different parts of the town, under a variety of names; and it was considered as an extraordinary circumstance that, with a capital so very inadequate to the extensive trade into which he had launched, he should be able to support his credit for so long a period: but the public surprise abated when it was discovered that he had chiefly depended on the circulation of notes of hand and bills of exchange. Some time having elapsed, he engaged again in business, and a second failure took place, though for a sum greatly inferior to the claims of his former creditors. He had now no expectations of assistance from his wife's relations; but he contrived means for establishing himself again in business, which he was the better enabled to carry on by means of notes of hand being frequently lent him by a man named Brown. Brown was in France towards the end of the year 1768; and about that time he became connected with one Aked, of Leeds, in Yorkshire, whose notes he passed for the support of his drooping credit in the manner that he had formerly negotiated those of Brown.
Alexander had borrowed eighty pounds on a note of Aked's, indorsed in the name of Brown, for ninety-eight pounds, six shillings; and it not being paid when due, he gave Mr. Fryar, who had advanced the money, another note, as collateral security, assuring him that in a few days the notes should be redeemed. At length Fryar accused Alexander of forgery; and he was committed to Newgate. He was acquitted on indictments found against him for two other offences of a similar nature; but, though several witnesses swore the writing was not the prisoner's, he was convicted of forging the indorsement on the bill for ninety-eight pounds, six shillings. Brown would have proved the most material witness; and, had he been in England, the prisoner would, perhaps, have derived great advantage from his evidence. The behaviour of Alexander in Newgate was such as could on no account be disapproved in a man under his unhappy circumstances; and he entertained strong hopes of being considered as an object of the royal mercy. From a variety of circumstances great numbers of people believed him to be innocent of the fact; and very powerful interest was made for preserving his life.
On the morning appointed for his execution he was respited for a week: before the expiration of that time, and it being represented that messengers were gone to France in search of Brown, he was respited for a week longer. Brown's affidavit was brought from France, expressing that he wrote the indorsement that Alexander had been charged with forging. The affidavit being carried to his majesty at Richmond, he was pleased to refer the matter to Lord Weymouth; but his lordship's interference could not be obtained, he being then at his country seat. The sheriffs attended at Newgate the next morning, in order to conduct the prisoner to the place of execution. He informed them that his friends were gone to Richmond, to make a second application to the king; and they consented to defer their melancholy office till the issue of the intercession should be known. No further respite being obtained, the prisoner was taken from Newgate about half past twelve o'clock, attended by a dissenting minister, with whom he prayed in an earnest and devout manner. At the place of execution his behaviour was decent and composed; and he persisted in the declaration of his innocence till the last moments of his life. Moses Alexander was executed at Tyburn about half past two in the afternoon of the 9th of August, 1769.
The imprudence of Alexander in launching into a trade too extensive for his capital to support produced a train of difficulties that ended in an ignominious death. His conduct in regard to Mr. Nicol proved him to be divested of all principles of integrity; and certain it is that in several instances he was guilty of forgery, and other unjustifiable practices; but whether he committed the offence of which he was convicted is a question that we pretend not to decide. We are aware that, if legal decisions were to be frequently reversed, the reverence that is due to the law would be highly endangered; but in cases of a doubtful nature reason and humanity will justify the suspension of a convict's sentence till his criminality shall be more clearly proved. We mean not to insinuate the least reflection against the sheriffs, who acted perfectly consistent with the duties of their office; but we cannot avoid observing that it was a most unfortunate circumstance for Alexander (because, had Brown personally acknowledged the indorsement on the day of trial, an acquittal must have necessarily ensued) that, in the absence of the secretary of state, one or more of the judges had not power to determine whether Brown's affidavit was of sufficient authority to leave the convict's fate in suspense till his guilt or innocence could be more satisfactorily ascertained.