Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James McGurk, [on or before 19 April 1802]

From James McGurk

[on or before 19 Apr. 1802]

The Petition of James McGurk

Respectfully sheweth—

That he has Lately been tried in the Circuit Court of the Distorit of Columbia (for suposed murder) found guilty and sentenced to suffer death, which sentence no doubt will be put into Execution ere Long Unless Prevented by the interference of your Excellency, in whose benevelence only depends the excistance of the Unfortunate wretch James MGurk who will be hurried into eternity and meet that alwise Judge Unprepared—

Death is a terror to the human heart, but more so, to Such a wretch as I am—

The Charactor of the nation over which you now preside is Known for the mildness of its Laws and the humainety of those that Executes them

your Excellency Predicessor is also Known for their humainety and never Suffered a wretch to be put to death where they with safity could prevent it

Surely then I cannot be without hops of my Days being Prolonged in a Land over which a Jefferson presides—in your Excellency is the hopes of the nation over which you now preside and the hopes of the Unfortunate James McGurk,

Therefore the Almighty I trust will derect and support your Excellency in all your Proceedings and derect you to releve the distressed whenever it is in your Excellency power to do it with Safity, which may be done in the Present Case, and grant such relief as you may think proper, and your Petitioner will as in duty bound iver pray—

James McGurk

I throw my Self at your feet for mercy on my life hoping you will not See Inosent Blood Spild

RC (DNA: RG 59, GPR); in an unidentified hand, postscript and signature by McGurk; undated; at head of text: “To his Excellency Thomas Jefferson Esquire President of the United States of America”; endorsed by TJ as received 19 Apr. and “Petition for pardon” and so recorded in SJL; endorsed by a clerk.

James McGurk (d. 1802) was an immigrant bricklayer. On 10 Apr. 1802, the circuit court for the District of Columbia found him guilty of the beating death of his wife. According to evidence presented in the case, McGurk, who was prone to drunken rages, assaulted his pregnant spouse multiple times. After a series of beatings in August 1801, Mrs. McGurk gave birth prematurely to twin boys. The babies had bruises on their bodies and were either stillborn or died within minutes of their delivery. Mrs. McGurk died in January 1802, several days after another episode of severe physical abuse by her husband. She was about 22 or 23 years old. When William Cranch, the court’s presiding judge, passed sentence, he reportedly said that James McGurk’s “offence was much aggravated, by the deceased having been his wife, who ought rather to have received protection at his hand, than such barbarous treatment as to occasion her death.” After his arrest in January, McGurk was held in a small brick building that served as the district’s jail. In October 1802, an appeal for clemency in his behalf stated that the condemned man was “confined in a Room scarcly seven feet square, loaded with near 60 lb of Irons.” The prisoner wrote letters to TJ that McGurk’s attorney, Augustus B. Woodward, thought would be too “intrusive” to deliver until August 1802, when Woodward apparently took the letters with him on a hurried trip to Monticello to appeal for an emergency stay of execution. Woodward also carried a petition on McGurk’s behalf bearing the names of more than 150 people, many of whom had Irish surnames. In letters to newspapers, prompted by an outcry against the delays in McGurk’s execution, Woodward argued against the death penalty in general but also contended that the crime was not intentional murder because McGurk had not meant to cause his wife’s death. McGurk made two appeals to TJ for clemency during October, writing one of them on the day of his execution. TJ did not respond to those pleas, and McGurk was hanged on 28 Oct. 1802. He was the first person to be executed under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia. The hanging was a public event, at a gallows erected for the purpose, and some members of the crowd reportedly cut off bits of the hangman’s rope afterward as talismans against toothache and headache. According to recollections published years later, some people who objected to McGurk’s burial near the remains of their loved ones surreptitiously removed his coffin from its grave. His remains were found and returned to the grave, but the offended parties clandestinely disinterred the corpse a second time and reburied it in another location, where it remained (Washington Federalist, 14 Apr., 1, 3, 8 Sep. 1802; National Intelligencer, 29 Oct. 1802, 29 Nov. 1845; Cranch to Woodward, 20 Sep. 1802, in DNA: RG 59, GPR; Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City [Washington, D.C., 1866], 31, 61–5; RCHS description begins Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 1895–1989 description ends , 33–34 [1932], 296–7; Woodward to TJ, 16 Aug. 1802; Woodward and others to TJ, [ca. 16 Aug. 1802]; McGurk petitions, 10, [28] Oct. 1802; “Friend” to TJ, 23 Oct. 1802).

IN ALL YOUR PROCEEDINGS: legal questions pertaining to the warrant for McGurk’s execution prompted TJ’s queries to Levi Lincoln and John Thomson Mason on 11 Apr. TJ apparently decided that the circuit court, at its July term, should resolve the matter of authorization for carrying out the sentence. The court set the execution for 28 Aug., prompting Woodward to make his trip to Monticello, where he succeeded in getting TJ to grant a reprieve of two months. Some Federalists used the delays to argue that TJ was too lenient and claimed that he showed special favor to this criminal because McGurk had entered the office of the Gazette of the United States in Philadelphia one evening in 1799 carrying a sword and looking for John Ward Fenno. The individual found guilty of assault on one of Fenno’s associates in that incident, however, was not James McGurk but a different person, John McGurk. There were also claims that James McGurk had been one of a gang of toughs who lurked about Washington and intimidated Burr’s supporters early in 1801, before the resolution of the presidential election by the House of Representatives (Gazette of the United States, 9 Apr. 1799, 12 Aug. 1802; Porcupine’s Gazette, 11 Apr. 1799; Georgetown Olio, 5 Aug. 1802; Washington Federalist, 27 Aug., 10 Sep. 1802; National Intelligencer, 30 Aug. 1802; New-York Gazette and General Advertiser, 10 Sep. 1802; Baltimore Republican or, Anti-Democrat, 13 Sep. 1802; Easton, Md., Republican Star, 23 Nov. 1802; Madison, Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson, Robert A. Rutland, J. C. A. Stagg, and others, eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago and Charlottesville, 1962–, 32 vols. Sec. of State Ser., 1986–, 8 vols. Pres. Ser., 1984–, 6 vols. Ret. Ser., 2009–, 1 vol. description ends , Sec. of State Ser., 3:517).

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