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Pair 23: Crime, Perpetrators, and Punishment

Pair 23: Crime, Perpetrators, and Punishment

A court in Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia sentenced Thomas Hellier to death for a May 1678 murder. He was executed August 5, 1678, and his rotting corpse hung on the bank of the James River as a deterrent. Hellier was born in Dorsetshire, England, received an education and patrimony, squandered it in London taverns, and without resources opted to sail for the Virginia colony as an indentured servant. Expecting to serve as a tutor to the children of Cuthbert “Cutbeard” Williamson for a period, in order to pay for his travel, Hellier was surprised to find instead that the family relegated him to their “Hard Labour plantation” tobacco fields for manual labor. He performed nine months of back-breaking labor while receiving perpetual verbal abuse from his mistress, before he reached a psychological breaking point. He killed the Williamsons with an ax, and when Mary Clark, a servant, tried to stop him Hellier also murdered her.

Thomas Hellier, et al. The Vain Prodigal Life and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier (London, 1680). Catalog Record.

The Vain Prodigal Life (Number 19 in 101 Treasures) is a remarkable book for its contents, structure, and place in the history of crime-related literature. It is not a confessional, sermon, nor a recording of trial proceedings. Anglican minister Paul Williams, the apparent author, conducted interviews with Hellier, compiled the information into an “autobiography,” produced a narrative, and gave his analysis of the case. We do not know how closely the interviews match the book or what liberties or suppositions the writer may have taken. Regardless, it is a rare seventeenth-century published effort to investigate the personal and sociological motives for a murder.

The Clements Library’s “true crime” holdings expanded dramatically with the 1992 purchase of James V. Medler’s collection of printed broadsides, pamphlets, novels, court records, scientific studies, and more. Since the publication of 101 Treasures, the library has continued the search for materials related to crime and criminals, expanding especially in the areas of law enforcement, incarceration, mental health, prison reform, and experiences of the individual persons involved.

In early 2023, for example, the library had the opportunity to acquire a small clutch of handwritten letters, legal documents, and a pamphlet regarding the murder of 2-year-old John Wilson Elliot by his father Seth Elliot in 1824. Seth was a farmer and father of seven children in Hancock County, Maine, with a history of alcohol abuse and violence toward his wife and children. On July 25, 1824, he killed his son with a razor and attempted suicide in the same manner. Elliot’s defense argued that he was insane, while the prosecutor called for his execution. The collection is compelling in part for a series of letters Seth Elliot wrote from the Castine jail while awaiting his death, a partially printed order for the local militia to stand guard at the execution, and the publication of the trial proceedings.

Seth Elliot Collection, 1824; Hancock County, Maine.
Accessioned February 27, 2023; currently uncatalogued.