In 1812 a spectacular hanging was staged in South Boston. Two men, Samuel Tully (1770-1812) and John Dalton, were sentenced to be executed for piracy and murder. While their crimes were not particularly grisly, the fact that two were going together drew fifteen thousand people to the gallows, half the population of the town. The entire affair was reported in the newspapers in detail and two pamphlets were published within weeks of the event; the execution even spawned a series against capital punishment in the Boston Independent Chronicle in December 1812 (Tully; Report of the Trial ).
In the weeks before the big day, Coverly had several broadsides on this topic for sale in his shop: the broadside shown here, A Copy of a Letter from Samuel Tully, as well as On Samuel Tully and John Dalton, The Last Words of S. Tully, and another entitled The Last Words of S. Tully. The trail of Coverly’s broadsides and their imitations give a good picture of the dynamics of sensationalist printing for street sales in early Federal Boston.
Probably shortly after the verdict was reached, Coverly printed a broadside entitled Solemn Reflections, Occasioned by the Trial of John Dalton, and S. Tully: For Piracy and Murder, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Two figures flank the title with scrolls over their heads that read “Dalton” and “Tully,” and a forty-five verse moral poem fills the oversized sheet. Next came the letter shown here, purportedly from Tully to his father. In this broadside, Tully’s alias is given as R. Heathcoate, and the text consists of his letter to his father in England, Rowland Heathcoate, explaining the circumstances of his arrest for piracy and his innocence in the matter.
Joseph White also printed a pre-event broadside, On Samuel Tully and John Dalton. This lyric of fifteen verses in ballad meter was released on December 7, three days before the scheduled execution of the two men. Dalton’s alias is given as R. Heathcote, contradicting the identification on the broadside shown here. The text may have been written by a clergyman. It is didactic, but not overly religious.
In advance of the hanging, Coverly printed up a dramatic story of the execution as it was to unfold, complete with an elaborate relief cut showing the action as the carter led the horse away, pulling the wagon out from under the feet of the victims, suspending them in air. Monogrammed coffins are standing upright against the gallows and the armed officials pose stiffly around the scene. This broadside must have sold wonderfully well and Coverly knew it would, particularly if he enhanced it with a good picture. It was a large broadside, measuring about eighteen by twelve inches and he probably commissioned the dramatic illustration from local engraver Nathaniel Dearborn (1786-1852), one of Boston’s earliest engravers on wood.
But the day of the hanging, Dalton was reprieved! Perhaps using a layout he had ready as a follow-up to the execution, Coverly adjusted the broadside to tell what really happened. Someone took a knife to the illustration and out came the second body and one of the coffins. Putting the “corrected” cut back into the forme and changing the title to The Last Words of S. Tully, Coverly rushed the revised layout through his press and out onto the streets.
The Last Words of S. Tully includes a prose narrative but no lyrics. After Tully’s last words, a prayer was given, the cart pulled away, and Tully died. The marshal then stepped forward and addressed the spectators, telling them that Dalton had a temporary reprieve. The final column is a reflection on the entire affair, with additional information about the victims, including the information that Tully was “an American by birth, of respectable but poor parents in the State of Pennsylvania, and is forty-two years of age.”
Joseph White also produced a follow-up broadside, The Last Words of S. Tully, using four of the verses from his pre-hanging broadside, On Samuel Tully and John Dalton, adding two verses telling what happened, and adding an account of the day’s events. His prose version of the marshal’s speech is in different words from that on Coverly’s large broadside. Perhaps both men were on the spot and later reconstructed the speech from hasty notes. This is a blow-by-blow description of the events at the scaffold. Tully is unable to read his “last words” and asks a deputy marshal to read it. In the document Tully admits his guilt on the theft, but denies being responsible for the murder. Since the headline on the broadside states that Tully was executed for piracy, that may be the “theft” he takes responsibility for in his statement, in contradiction of his letter to his father published on the broadside shown here. He then thanks the people of Boston for their support and “good advice” and hopes they will take a lesson from his suffering.
A paragraph follows in which the marshal informs the crowd that Dalton has received a temporary reprieve. A final line states that Tully was born in New York State, and was then forty-two years old, also contradicting the Heathcoate alias from the broadside shown here. Across the bottom of the broadside is a rewriting of the lyric On Samuel Tully and John Dalton, but after the event. The verses are in a new order: 1, 2, 11, 9, and 5. With verse 5, only the first line remains. The rest is new. Tully dies; Dalton is eventually reprieved.
Two other printers cashed in on the event, with copies of Coverly’s large broadsides reflecting the reprieve but without the Dearborn woodcut. In God’s Judgments Upon Murder, Salmon Wilder of Leominster openly copied Coverly’s entire pre-hanging broadside, replacing the lyrics with a report on what happened. Finally, hiding his identity under a pseudonym, Timothy Longlive’s Last Words broadside simply reproduced Coverly’s entire text and format. The public evidently could not get enough of the details of this entire episode. The narrative of the trial went through several editions and continued to be published into 1814, and Coverly still had copies of the four broadsides in his shop to sell to Thomas in June of the same year.