Newgate Calendar - SAMUEL BURR

SAMUEL BURR

Convicted of a Forgery, in the year 1787

Though this is a very extraordinary case, yet we have met with similar instances of men being so very weary of life, as to commit a crime, in order that their lives might be taken by the law! and thereby prevent them from becoming their own murderers. Such an instance was the following:

On the fourth of September, 1760, when North America entirely belonged to our country, a Mr. Robert Scull, with several gentlemen, were playing at billiards in Philadelphia; when Captain Bruluman, late of the Royal American regiment, came into the room, and without the smallest provocation, levelled a loaded gun, which he had brought with him, and shot Mr. Scull through the body, just after he had struck his ball, for which murder he was tried and executed.

This desperate man had been brought up a silversmith, which business he left to enter the army, where he was an officer in the Royal American regiment, but was broke on being detected in counterfeiting or uttering base money. He then returned to Philadelphia, and growing insupportable to himself, and yet unwilling to put an end to his own life, he determined upon the commission of some illegal crime, for which he would certainly be hanged by the law. Having formed this design, he loaded his gun with a brace of balls, and asked his landlord to go a-shooting with him, intending to murder him before his return, but the landlord being fortunately particularly engaged at home, escaped the danger. He then went out alone, and on the way met a man whom he was about to kill, but recollecting that there were no witnesses to prove him guilty, he suffered the man to pass. He then went to a tavern, where he drank some liquor, and hearing people playing at billiards in a room above that in which he sat, he went up-stairs, and entered into conversation with the players, in apparent good humour. In a little time he called the landlord, and desired him to hang up the gun. Mr. Scull having struck his antagonist's ball in one of the pockets, Bruluman said to him, "Sir, you are a good marksman, now I'll show you a fine stroke." He immediately took down his gun, levelled it, deliberately took aim at Mr. Scull (who imagined him in jest) and shot both the balls through his body. He then went up to the dying man, who was still sensible, and said to him, "Sir, I have no malice or ill-will against you; I never saw you before, but I was determined to kill somebody, that I might be hanged, and you happen to be the man; and I am very sorry for your misfortune."

Mr. Scull had just time left in this world, to send for his friends and make his will. He forgave his murderer, and, if it could be done, desired he might be pardoned. Bruluman died on the gallows, exulting in his fate.

The same volume from which we make the above extract, contains another of the like nature, and, if possible, more extraordinary. We shall, therefore, before we give the particulars of Samuel Burr, add this fatal precedent for the commission of the deed by which he sought his own death.

A youth of the name of David Williams, who, when about fifteen years of age, was one day, against his wish, detained from school, by his father-in-law, who greatly wanted his assistance on the farm. While thus employed, a log rolled on one of his legs, which injured it to such a degree, that it became nearly useless; and by another accident he soon after hurt the other limb, so that he was rendered almost a cripple, before he had attained the years of man. At these misfortunes he continually repined, blamed his step-father for keeping him that day from school, whereby he received his first injury; and, mortified at his appearance among his comrades, some of whom, he said, ridiculed him, he became weary of the world, and determined to end his misfortunes with his life. For this end, suicide and murder presented themselves. The first he thought the most eligible, but then it brought to his mind, the horrors of appearing, by his own violence, before God, he would not be pardoned; and therefore he was induced to abandon that for the latter, which would afford him a better excuse to the Almighty; besides, death, by hanging by any other hands than his own, he found most desirable.

He familiarised himself to this act of desperation, by continually thinking of it; so that in time it became a pleasing subject of contemplation. The consideration of the grief which it must occasion his mother, at times, almost unbent his resolution; but then the idea of its proving a sweet revenge on his father-in-law, bore down every other consideration. Thus determined, the next step of this unhappy young man was, to select a proper subject on whom the deed should be committed. A grown person or a child was the question. The former, he concluded, must be under sin and guilt: therefore, by sudden death, and thus unprepared, his damnation might be chargeable to him, and he be double guilty; the latter, being innocent, he might avoid that charge, and therefore resolved upon murdering some child. Now, the particular object for this horrid purpose, was the next thought; but he confessed, that though he thought of it more than six months, yet none occurred, until within five minute of his committing his long-determined and bloody deed. All the morning of the fatal day, he said that he felt an unaccountable and far stronger desire to commit murder, than before, to use his own words, "Something like hankering after fruit." At this unfortunate moment he chanced to spy a little boy, named Ira, the son of Mr. Lane, a neighbour, gathering plums, and finding the parents absent, determined on seizing the opportunity and subject. He instantly seized a gun, fired at, and slightly wounded the child in the side of the abdomen. Finding his victim yet alive, he limped to him, led him to the house, placed him upon a bed, and took a station at the door. Poor, devoted little Ira had strength left to get from the bed, in order to see "whether his father was coming to cure him." Williams answered, that his father would come by and bye, and bid him go to bed again, and lie still. Again the murderer listened for the dying groan of the boy, but finding his work incomplete, (horrid to relate) he took an axe, went to the bed, looked upon the innocent child, and while it held up its little hands for help, the monster struck it on the head, and by repeated and accursed blows, chopped it in pieces. The wretched murderer was a youth of extraordinary mental talents for his years, until the fatal gloom over spread him.

After the horrid deed was done, he spoke of it with calmness, observing, that though he had often considered the grief he should bring on his own mother, it never occurred to him, the distraction it must cause her who bore the murdered child. His whole intent was to get himself hanged. He supposed that the perpetration of the murder, under so many palliating circumstances, would excite the pity and forgiveness of the Almighty. He farther admitted in the account he gave of himself, that the example of a pious mother, and an affectionate and good brother had no influence over his determined purpose; that he had an evil temper, soured ever since his father-in-law took him that unhappy day from school; but that he had never committed a bad crime before. He was, in the eye of the law, considered a lunatic, and as such treated.

The immediate subject of the present enquiry, Samuel Burr, was a young man of fair character, but who laboured under so great a depression of mind, as to render him weary of life. He did not, however, seek death at the hands of the law, by shedding the blood of his fellow creature; he pursued a still more effectual plan, as he conceived, knowing that though the crime of murder, under particular circumstances, has found mercy, but forgery is unpardonable. Yet, in this he did not succeed, for when his determination to die was known, the executive power would have him live, and in pursuance, from time to time, his execution was respited. That such was his fixed determination to die, will be proved by his address to the Bench, on receiving sentence; and that he was possessed of superior abilities, will be seen by the style of his speech. Having been convicted of forgery, when the Recorder of London called him by name, in the usual manner, to know what he had to say, why sentence of death should not be passed upon him, he thus replied;

"My Lord, I am too sensible of the crime I have committed, and for which I justly deserve to suffer; not to know that my life I have forfeited, and wish to resign it into the hands of Him who gave it. To give my reasons for this, would only satisfy an idle curiosity; no one can feel a more sensible heart-felt satisfaction in the hopes of shortly passing into eternity; wherein, I trust, I shall meet with great felicity. I have no desire to live; and as the jury and court in my trial thought proper to recommend me to mercy, if his Majesty should, in consequence thereof, grant me a respite, I here vow, in the face of heaven, that I will put an end to my own existence as soon as I can. It is death that I wish for, because nothing but death can extricate me from the troubles which my follies have involved me in."

We did not find any note of his being executed, therefore conclude, that in pity to his mental derangement, he finally received a pardon. The last time he is named, was in these words, "Samuel Burr, the unhappy youth, who, under a depression of mind, abhorring the guilt of suicide, committed a forgery in order to suffer death by the law, was respited."

 

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