Executions in Revolutionary War Philadelphia

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Executions in Revolutionary War Philadelphia

2011-07-11 15:51
This appeared in July's HSP email publication, History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania.
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Fear, anger, and revenge were no strangers to the early residents of Philadelphia County during the Revolutionary War. Many had suffered during the British occupation, losing property, homes, and family members to both sides of the conflict.  In Philadelphia and the surrounding area, emotions ran high and compassion was at a minimum when the British Army retreated.

As the British departed from Philadelphia in June 1778 and American forces reclaimed the city, a number of trials of suspected British supporters commenced, some even resulted in executions of the accused.  Loyalists had been tried, convicted, and hanged for actively recruiting Americans into the British Army, including James Iliff and John Mee of Morristown, New Jersey on December 2, 1777.  Abijah (or Abisha) Wright and William Thurlow had also been hanged in 1778 in Whitpain Township (now Montgomery County) from the limb of a large walnut and white oak tree respectively, for the burglary and attempted murder of Squire Andrew Knox, a Patriot.

Perhaps the most famous yet tragic execution of an alleged
John Roberts' house in Lower Merion Township
John Roberts' house still stands in Lower Merion Township

Loyalist was that of Quaker millwright John Roberts III.  A wealthy man who owned 700 acres of land stretching from Pennsylvania into Maryland, Roberts was the grandson of a 17th century Welsh immigrant and lived with his wife and twelve children at a home on the corner of Old Gulph Road and Dodds Lane in Lower Merion Township (right). He was accused by some of his less prosperous neighbors of being a Loyalist in support of the British cause.  One account charged that Roberts had mixed glass in the flour ground at his mill to give to American troops, although it was never confirmed.  

On August 10, 1778, Roberts was arrested along with Abraham Carlisle, another local man accused of being a Loyalist, even though he had aided imprisoned American soldiers. Hundreds of prominent loyal citizens, including three of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, signed petitions (like the one below) attesting to Roberts' good character and calling for a pardon to be issued.   
Letter to the Sheriff of Philadelphia from James Young, in defense of John Roberts, July 27, 1778
Letter to the sheriff of Philadelphia from James Young, in defense of John Roberts, July 27, 1778
Elizabeth Drinker diary entry, Nov. 4, 1778
Elizabeth Drinker diary entry, Nov. 4, 1778

However, less than three months later, John Roberts was executed for treason by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  His supporters believed he had been used as a scapegoat and his execution as a warning to other Loyalists.  Others advocated that his trial was an initiative started by some of his greedy neighbors in order to claim his valuable property.  One Quaker woman, Elizabeth Drinker, remarked in her diary (pictured right) on November 4, 1778: "they have actually put to Death; Hang'd on the Commons, John Robarts and Am. Carlisle...an awful Solemn day it has been...the poor afflicted widows, are wonderfully upheld and supported, under their very great trial-they have many simpathzing Friends."

Although Roberts was declared a traitor and his property confiscated, a portion of the family property was returned to his widow in 1792, who was also granted a small pension for her care.  Abraham Carlisle, though his attorneys attempted to prove that his indictment was "vague and uncertain," was hanged without a reprieve.

To learn more about John Roberts, look for David W. Maxey's Treason on Trial in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: The Case of John Roberts, Miller to be published through the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.  A Philadelphia lawyer and history enthusiast, Maxey served on the Board of Councilors of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  
In response to last month's installment of History Hits about the crash of the Hindenburg, HSP member Jane Krumrine generously donated a framed photograph of the airship in flames.  The photograph was taken by her father, Charles S. Krumrine, at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937. 
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