George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Bird, 5 June 1790

From Thomas Bird

Portland in the District of Maine
June the 5th 1790

Permit a stranger to inform your Excellency, that about twelve months since, I was apprehended & committed to Goal, in the Town of Portland, within the District of Maine, charged with the murder of Capt. John Conner, of the Sloop Mary, upon the Coast of Africa. That yesterday I was tried & found guilty of the Crime, & that the District Judge, a few hours since pronounced the fatal sentence, that still rings in my Ears & harrows up my soul, the sentence of Death, which is to be Executed upon me on the 25 day of June Inst., The time is short Great Washington, too short, for a wretch harden’d in Crimes to prepare for that Country, from whose bourn no Traveller e’er return’d. Permit him to intreat your Excellency, in your great Clemency, to grant him a Pardon or Commute the punishment to something, to any thing, short of Death, It is usual for Kings and Emperors, at the Commencement of their Reign to grant such indulgences, Permit me then to beg that the Commencement of your administration may be marked, by Extending mercy to the first Condemned under it, or at least by granting him a Reprieve for a few months longer, your Excellency will be pleas’d to consider that I am at a great distance from the seat of Government, and that the days I have to live are very few, so that my Case demands immediate attention, Hear then and immediately attend to the cries, of a wretch, who unless your Excellency interpose will before Saturday the 26. of this month be beyond the reach of your Excellency’s goodness.1

Thomas X Bird
Signed in presence of John Frothingham
Enoch Preble

L, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

1On 5 June 1790 David Sewall, judge of the U.S. District Court wrote GW further details of Bird’s case: “That the Supreme Executive of the United States may be duly informed of the Charge, Trial, and Sentence of the district Court of Maine upon Thomas Bird for a capital offence, is the intention of my enclosing a Copy of the Process. This Capital Conviction, is probably the first in the Nation since the establishment of the Federal Courts under the new Constitution[.] A Writ or Warrant of Execution will Issue from the district Court to the Marshall, in Consequence of Which the Sentence will be put in force at the Time mentioned in the Judgement, unless the Supreme executive shall deem it expedient to interpose. Should an application be made for Mercy, all I can say on the Occasion [is] that the Charge appeared fully proved” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Sewall’s enclosure was the proceedings of Bird’s trial in the district court on 1 June: “The Jurors for the District of Maine on their oath present, that Thomas Bird, late resident at Bristol in the Kingdom of Great Britain, now confined in the common Gaol in Portland aforesaid, Mariner, not having the fear of God before his eyes, on the twenty-third day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, upon the High-seas about the latitude of five degrees North, and about four degrees West longitude, off the coast of Africa, within the jurisdiction of the Court aforesaid, the said Thomas Bird, then being a Mariner of a certain Sloop called the Mary, whereof one John Connor was Master, with force and arms piratically, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, in and upon the said John Connor, then in the peace of God and the said United States being, an assault did make, and that the said Thomas Bird, with a hand-gun loaden with gun-powder and leaden ball, which same gun the said Thomas Bird then and there had and held in both his hands, and the same gun thus loaded as aforesaid, piratically, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought did discharge in and upon the breast of him the said John Connor thereby giving him the said John Connor a mortal wound, of which mortal wound thus made by the discharge of the same gun in manner as aforesaid, he the said John Connor instantly died; and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid do say, that the said Thomas Bird, on the High-seas aforesaid, in manner and form aforesaid, the said John Connor piratically, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder.

“And the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, do further present, that Hans Hanson, late resident at Norway in the Kingdom of Norway, now a prisoner in the Gaol in Portland aforesaid, Mariner on the same twenty-third day of January aforesaid, upon the High seas aforesaid, within the jurisdiction of the Court aforesaid, then being a Mariner on board the same Sloop Mary, was present, and then and there knowingly and willingly did aid, abet and assist the said Thomas Bird, in piratically and feloniously killing and murdering the said John Connor—in manner aforesaid, against the peace of the said United States of America, and the dignity of the same.

“And afterwards on the second day of June instant, the said Thomas Bird, and Hans Hanson, are set to the Bar by the Marshal of this District, and have the Indictment read to them; and it being demanded of them concerning the premises in the said Indictment above specified and charged upon them, how they will acquit themselves thereof, they severally say, they are not guilty, and thereof put themselves upon the Country.” The jury, “after fully hearing the evidence produced in behalf of the United States, and also the full defence of the Prisoners, by their Counsel learned in the Law, upon their oath do say, that the said Thomas Bird—is guilty—and that the said Hans Hanson is not guilty. Whereupon it is ordered by the Court, that the said Hans Hanson be discharged, and go without day. And it is demanded of the said Thomas Bird, wherefore the Court here ought not upon the premises aforesaid to proceed to Judgement and Execution against him. And the said Thomas Bird by his Counsel moved, in arrest of Judgement, the following reasons, viz.

“1. The Bill against the said Bird is not found by the Jurors of the United States.

“2. The place where the Crime was said to be committed, is uncertain.

“3. The Indictment does not conclude, against the peace and dignity of the United States, as it ought to do. and is fully heard thereon, which reasons are adjudged insufficient to arrest the Judgement.

“Whereupon all and singular the premises being seen, and by the said Judge fully understood, it is considered by the Court here, that the said Thomas Bird be taken to the Prison from whence he came, and from thence on Friday the twenty-fifth day of June instant, to the place of Execution, and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead. And that a Warrant issue to the Marshal of this District, under the Seal of this Court, to cause Execution to be done upon the said Thomas Bird according to the Judgement, on Friday the twenty-fifth day of June instant, between the hours of three and five in the afternoon” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellanous Letters).

GW evidently requested Jay’s opinion of the case in a letter to the chief justice of 13 June, asking “would there be prudence, justice or policy in extending mercy to the Convict mentioned in the enclosed Papers?” Jay found that “There does not appear to be a single Circumstance in the Case of the Murderer in question, to recommend a Pardon—His own Petition contains no averment of Innocence, no Palliative for Guilt, no complaint of Court Jury or witnesses, nor of the want of witnesses” (Jay to GW, 13 June 1790). On 28 June GW wrote Sewall that “No palliating circumstance appeared in the case of this unhappy man to recommend him to mercy for which he applied: I could not therefore have justified it to the laws of my Country, had I, in this instance, exercised that pardoning power which the Constitution vests in the President of the United States” (LB, DLC:GW).

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