Copyright
William Chambers.

Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

. (page 51 of 58)
Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 51 of 58)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and shame. Folger, having pondered on a variety of circum-
stances, felt convinced that he had been the victim of a designing
impostor, that Pierson's death had been caused by foul means, and
that the lives of his own family had been exposed to a similar
danger. On these suspicions he caused Matthews to be apprehended,
for the purpose, in the first place, of being tried on a charge of
swindling. On the i6th of October 1834, this remarkable case
came on for trial before the Court of Sessions in New York, on an
indictment setting forth that Matthews was guilty of 'devising by
unlawful means to obtain possession of money, goods, chattels, and
effects of divers good people of the state of New York ; and that the
said B. H. Folger, believing his representations, gave the said
Matthias one hundred pieces of gold coin, of the value of five
hundred and thirty dollars, and one hundred dollars in bank-notes,
which the said Matthias feloniously received by means of the false
pretences aforesaid.' Matthews pled not guilty to the charge, but
upon the solicitation of Folger, who seems to have been ashamed to
appear publicly as prosecutor, the district attorney dropped the case,
and the prisoner was handed over to the authorities of the county of
Westchester, on the still more serious accusation of having murdered
Mr Pierson.

To bring to a conclusion this melancholy tale of delusion, impos-
ture, and crime, Matthews was arraigned for murder before the court
of Oyer and Terminer at Westchester, on the i6th of April 1835.
The trial excited uncommon interest, and many persons attended
from a great distance, to get a view of the man whose vagaries had
made so much noise in the country. The evidence produced for the
prosecution was principally that of medical men, who had been com-
missioned to disinter the body of the deceased, and examine the
condition of the stomach, it being a general belief that death had
been caused by poison. Unfortunately for the ends of justice, the
medical examinators could not agree that the stomach shewed indi-
cations of a poisonous substance, some alleging that it did, and
others affirming the reverse. On this doubtful state of the question,
the jury had no other course than to offer a verdict of acquittal. On
the announcement of the verdict, the prisoner was evidently elated ;



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

but his countenance fell when he found that he was to be tried on
another indictment for having assaulted his daughter, Mrs Laisdel,
with a whip, on the occasion of her visit to him at Singsing ; her
husband was the prosecutor. Of this misdemeanour he was imme-
diately found guilty, and condemned to three months' imprisonment
in the county jail. In passing sentence, the judge took occasion to
reprimand him for his gross impostures and impious pretensions, and
advised him, when he came out of confinement, to shave his beard,
lay aside his peculiar dress, and go to work like an honest man.

Of the ultimate fate of Matthews we have heard no account, and
therefore are unable to say whether he renewed his schemes of
imposture.

JOHN NICOLLS THOMS.

In the summer of 1838 the people of Great Britain were startled
by the intelligence of a remarkable disturbance in Kent, caused by
the assumptions of divine power by a madman named John Nicolls
Thorns.

This religious impostor was the son of a small farmer and
maltster at St Columb, in Cornwall. He appears to have entered
life as cellarman to a wine-merchant in Truro. Succeeding to his
master's business, he conducted it for three or four years, when his
warehouse was destroyed by fire, and he received ,3000 in compen-
sation from an insurance company. Since then, during more than
ten years, he had been in no settled occupation. In the year 1833
he appeared as a candidate successively for the representation of
Canterbury and East Kent, taking the title of Sir William Percy
Honeywood Courtenay, knight of Malta and king of Jerusalem, and
further representing himself as the owner by birthright of several
estates in Kent. His fine person and manners, and the eloquent
appeals he made to popular feeling, secured him a certain degree of
favour, but were not sufficient to gain for an obscure adventurer a
preferment usually reserved for persons possessing local importance
and undoubted fortune. Though baffled in this object, he continued
to address the populace as their peculiar friend, and kept up a certain
degree of influence amongst them. He is supposed to have con-
nected himself also with a number of persons engaged in the contra-
band trade, as, in July 1833, he made an appearance in a court of
law on behalf of the crew of a smuggling vessel, when he conducted
himself in such a way as to incur a charge of perjury. He was
consequently condemned to transportation for seven years, but, on a
shewing of his insanity, was committed to permanent confinement
in a lunatic asylum, from which he was discharged a few months
before his death, on a supposition that he might safely be permitted
to mingle once more in society.

Thorns now resumed his intercourse with the populace, whose
24



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

opinion of him was probably rather elevated than depressed by his
having suffered from his friendship for the smugglers. He repeated
his old stories of being a man of high birth, and entitled to some of
the finest estates in Kent. He sided with them in their dislike of
the new regulations for the poor, and led them to expect that what-
ever he should recover of his birthright should be as much for their
interest as his own. There were two or three persons of substance
who were so far deluded by him as to lend him considerable sums
of money. Latterly, pretensions of a more mysterious nature
mingled in the ravings of this madman ; and he induced a general
belief amongst the ignorant peasantry around Canterbury that he
was either the Saviour of mankind sent anew upon earth, or a being
of the same order, and commissioned for similar purposes. One of
his followers, when asked, after his death, by the correspondent of a
newspaper, how he could put faith in such a man, answered in
language of the following tenor : ' Oh, sir, he could turn any one
that once listened to him whatever way he liked, and make them
believe what he pleased. He had a tongue which a poor man could
not get over, and a learned man could not gainsay, although standing
before him. He puzzled all the lawyers in Canterbury, and they
confessed that he knew more of law than all put together. You
could not always understand what he said, but when you did, it was
beautiful, and wonderful, and powerful, just like his eyes ; and then
his voice was so sweet ! And he was such a grand gentleman, and
sometimes latterly such an awful man, and looked so terrible if any
one ventured to oppose him, that he carried all before him. Then,
again, he was so charitable ! While he had a shilling in his pocket,
a poor man never should want. And then such expectations as he
had, and which nobody could deny ! He had papers to prove him-
self to be either the heir or right possessor of Powderham Castle,
and Evington, and Nash Court, and Chilham Castle, and all the
estates of the families of the Courtenays, the Percies, and Honey-
woods, and of Sir Edward Hales, and Sir Thomas Hindlay, more

than I can tell you of. And there was Mr of Boughton, who

lent him ,200 on his title-deeds, and the waiter of the Hotel, in

Canterbury, who lent him 73, besides other respectable people
throughout the country who let him have as much money on his
estates as he pleased, and have kept up a subscription for him ever
since he was sent to jail in 1833 about the smugglers he befriended.
And at that same time it was well known that he need not have gone
to prison unless he liked, for the very ladies of Canterbury would
have rescued him, only he forbade them, and said the law should be
fulfilled. I myself saw them kissing his hand and his clothes in
hundreds that day ; and there was one woman that could not reach
him with a glass of cordial gin, she threw it into his mouth, and
blessed him, and bade him keep a bold heart, and he should yet be
free, and king of Canterbury ! '

25



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

It is further to be observed, that the aspect of the man was impos-
ing. His height approached six feet. His features were regular
and beautiful a broad fair forehead, aquiline nose, small well-cut
mouth, and full rounded chin. The only defect of his person was a
somewhat short neck ; but his shoulders were broad, and he
possessed uncommon personal strength. Some curious significa-
tions of the enthusiasm he had excited were afterwards observed in
the shape of scribblings on the walls of a barn. On the left side of
the door were the following sentences : ' If you new he was on earth,
your harts Wod turn;' 'But dont Wate to late;' 'They how R.'*
On the right side were the following : ' O that great day of gudge-
ment is close at hand ;' 'It now peps in the dor every man according
to his works ;' ' Our rites and liberties We Will have.'

On Monday the 28th of May 1838, the frenzy of Thorns and his
followers seems to have reached its height. With twenty or thirty
persons, in a kind of military order, he went about for three days
amongst the farmhouses in Boughton, Sittingbourne, Boulton, and
other villages in the vicinity of Canterbury, receiving and paying for
refreshment. One woman sent her son to him with a 'mother's
blessing,' as to join in some great and laudable work. He pro-
claimed a great meeting for the ensuing Sunday, which he said was
to be ' a glorious but bloody day.' At one of the places where he
ordered provisions for his followers, it was in these words, ' Feed my
sheep.' To convince his disciples of his divine commission, he is
said to have pointed his pistol at the stars, and told them that he
would make them fall from their spheres. He then fired at some
star, and his pistol having been rammed down with tow steeped in
oil, and sprinkled over with steel filings, produced, on being fired,
certain bright sparkles of light, which he immediately said were
falling stars. On another occasion he went away from his followers
with a man of the name of Wills and two others of the rioters, saying
to them : ' Do you stay here, whilst I go yonder,' pointing to a bean-
stack, ' and strike the bloody blow.' When they arrived at the stack,
to which they marched with a flag, the flag-bearer laid his flag on
the ground, and knelt down to pray. The other then put in, it is
said, a lighted match ; but Thorns seized it, and forbade it to burn,
and the fire was not kindled. This, on their return to the company,
was announced as a miracle.

On Wednesday evening he stopped at the farmhouse of Bossenden,
where the farmer Culver, finding that his men were seduced by the
impostor from their duty, sent for constables to have them appre-
hended. Two brothers named Mears, and another man, accordingly
went next morning; but on their approach, Thorns shot Nicolas
Mears dead with a pistol, and aimed a blow at his brother with a
dagger, whereupon the two survivors instantly fled. At an early
hour he was abroad with his followers, to the number of about forty,

* Apparently, They wfia err.
26



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

in Bossenden or Bleanwoods, which were to have been the scene of
the great demonstration on Sunday ; and a newspaper correspond-
ent reports the following particulars of the appearance and doings of
the fanatics at this place, from a woodcutter who was following his
business at the spot : ' Thorns undertook to administer the sacra-
ment in bread and water to the deluded men who followed him. He
told them on this occasion, as he did on many others, that there was
great oppression in the land, and indeed throughout the world ; but
that if they would follow him, he would lead them on to glory. He
depicted the gentry as great oppressors, threatened to deprive them
of their estates, and talked of partitioning these into farms of forty
or fifty acres among those who followed him. He told them he had
come to earth on a cloud, and that on a cloud he should some day
be removed from them ; that neither bullets nor weapons could
injure him or them, if they had but faith in him as their Saviour ;
and that if ten thousand soldiers came against him, they would
either turn to their side or fall dead at his command. At the end of
his harangue, Alexander Foad, whose jaw was afterwards shot off by
the military, knelt down at his feet and worshipped him ; so did
another man of the name of Brankford. Foad then asked Thorns
whether he should follow him in the body, or go home and follow
him in heart. To this Thorns replied : " Follow me in the body."
Foad then sprang on his feet in an ecstasy of joy, and with a voice
of great exultation exclaimed : " Oh, be joyful ! Oh, be joyful ! The
Saviour has accepted me. Go on go on ; till I drop I '11 follow
thee ! " Brankford also was accepted as a follower, and exhibited
the same enthusiastic fervour. At this time his denunciations
against those who should desert him were terrific. Fire would come
down from heaven and consume them in this world, and in the next
eternal damnation was to be their doom. His eye gleamed like a
bright coal whilst he was scattering about these awful menaces.
The woodcutter was convinced that at that moment Thorns would
have shot any man dead who had ventured to quit his company.
After this mockery of religion was completed, the woodcutter went
to Thorns, shook hands with him, and asked him if it was true that
he had shot the constable ? " Yes," replied Thorns coolly, " I did
shoot the vagabond, and I have eaten a hearty breakfast since. I
was only executing upon him the justice of Heaven, in virtue of the
power which God has given me." '

The two repulsed constables had immediately proceeded to Faver-
sham, for the purpose of procuring fresh warrants and the necessary
assistance. A considerable party of magistrates and other indivi-
duals now advanced to the scene of the murder, and about mid-day
(Thursday, May 31) approached Thoms's party at a place called the
Osier-bed, where the Rev. Mr Handley, the clergyman of the parish,
and a magistrate, used every exertion to induce the deluded men to
surrender themselves, but in vain. Thorns defied the assailants,



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

and fired at Mr Handley, who then deemed it necessary to obtain
military aid before attempting further proceedings. A detachment
of the 45th Regiment, consisting of a hundred men, was brought
from Canterbury, under the command of Major Armstrong. A
young officer, Lieutenant Bennett, who belonged to another regiment,
and was at Canterbury on furlough, proposed, under a sense of duty,
to accompany the party, on the condition that he should be allowed
to return before six o'clock to dine with some friends. At the
approach of the military-, Thorns and his men took up a position in
Bossenden wood between two roads. Major Armstrong divided his
men into two bodies of equal numbers, that the wood might be pene-
trated from both of these roads at once so as to enclose the rioters :
the one party he took command of himself, the other was placed
under the charge of Lieutenant Bennett. The magistrates who
accompanied the party, gave orders to the officers to take Courtenay,
as Thorns was usually called, dead or alive, and as many of his men
as possible. The two parties then advanced into the wood by
opposite paths, and soon came within sight of each other close to
the place where the fanatics were posted. A magistrate in Arm-
strong's party endeavoured to address the rioters, and induce them
to surrender ; but while he was speaking, the unfortunate Bennett
had rushed upon his fate. He had advanced, attended by a single
private, probably for the purpose of calling upon the insurgents to
submit, when the madman who led them advanced to meet him, and
Major Armstrong had just time to exclaim, ' Bennett, fall back/
when Thorns fired a pistol at him within a few yards of his body.
Bennett had apprehended his danger, and had his sword raised to
defend himself from the approaching maniac : a momentary collision
did take place between him and his slayer ; but the shot had lodged
with fatal effect in his side, and he fell from his horse a dead man.
Thorns fought for a few seconds with others of the assailants, but
was prostrated by the soldier attending Mr Bennett, who sent a ball
through his brain. The military party then poured in a general
discharge of firearms on the followers of the impostor, of whom nine
were killed, and others severely wounded, one so fatally as to expire
afterwards. A charge was made upon the remainder by the sur-
viving officer, and they were speedily overpowered and taken into
custody.

A reporter for the Morning Chronicle newspaper, who was imme-
diately after on the spot where this sad tragedy was acted, gave the
following striking account of the local feeling on the occasion : ' The
excitement which prevails here, in Boulton, the scene of the murder
of Lieutenant Bennett, and of the punishment of his assassins, and
the wretched peasantry who were deluded and misled by Courtenay,
exceeds anything I ever before witnessed. It was evident, upon
listening to the observations of the peasantry, especially of the
females, that the men who have been shot are regarded by them as
28



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

martyrs, while their leader was considered, and is venerated, as a
species of divinity. The rumour amongst them is, that " he is to rise
again on Sunday." Incredible as it may appear, I have been assured
of this as a positive fact with respect to the utter folly and madness
of the lower orders here. A more convincing proof of the fanaticism
that prevails cannot be afforded than the fact, that a woman [by
name Sarah Culver] was apprehended yesterday who was discovered
washing the face of Courtenay, and endeavouring to pour some
water between his lips. She, upon being interrogated, declared that
she had that day followed him for more than half a mile with a pail
of water, and her reason for it was, that he had desired her, if he
should happen to be killed, to put some water between his lips, and he
would rise again in a month. One of the prisoners, Wills, who had
received a slight wound from Major Armstrong, the commander of
the party, told him that he and the other men who were with Cour-
tenay would have attacked two thousand soldiers, as they were
persuaded by Courtenay that they coitld not be shot, and it was under
this impression they were determined upon fighting.'

Another local observer reports : ' Such is the veneration in which
numbers here hold Thorns, that various sums of money have been
offered to obtain a lock of his hair and a fragment of the blood-
stained shirt in which he died. The women, with whom he was a
prodigious favourite, seek these relics with the greatest avidity, and
are described as receiving them with the most enthusiastic devotion.'

Two of the rioters were tried at Maidstone, August 9, on the
charge of being principals with Thorns in the murder of Nicolas
Hears, and found guilty. Eight were tried on the ensuing day,
charged with the murder of Lieutenant Bennett ; they pleaded guilty,
and received the appropriate sentence. It was, however, thought
proper that capital punishment should not be inflicted on these men,
seeing that they had been acting under infatuation.

Mr Liardet, a gentleman deputed to make some inquiries respect-
ing the Kentish disturbances, observes, in a report on the subject,
that the main cause of the delusion was ignorance. ' A little con-
sideration of rural life,' says he, ' will shew the danger of leaving the
peasantry in such a state of ignorance. In the solitude of the
country, the uncultivated mind is much more open to the impressions
of fanaticism than in the bustle and collision of towns. In such
a stagnant state of existence the mind acquires no activity, and
is unaccustomed to make those investigations and comparisons
necessary to detect imposture. The slightest semblance of evidence
is often sufficient with them to support a deceit which elsewhere
would not have the smallest chance of escaping detection. If we
look for a moment at the absurdities and inconsistencies practised
by Thorns, it appears at first utterly inconceivable that any persons
out of a lunatic asylum could have been deceived by him. That an
imposture so gross and so slenderly supported should have succeeded,

29



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

must teach us, if anything will, the folly and danger of leaving the
agricultural population in the debasing ignorance which now exists
among them.'

We will conclude with some account of one of the most remark-
able pretended Messiahs of modern times,

SABBATHAIS ZWI.

This confessed impostor was born at Smyrna in 1641. A boy of
extraordinary gifts, he had at the age of fifteen already mastered that
great treasury of Jewish learning, the Talmud, and at eighteen was
an adept in the Cabbala, a system of mystical doctrines mixed up
with magic, which was greatly in vogue in those days. Very soon,
incited by fantastic dreams and more fantastic friends, he declared
himself to be the Messiah, who had been sent to shake off the
thraldom both of Christianity and Mohammedanism from the Jews,
and to convert all humanity. The supreme council of the Jewish
church thereupon excommunicated him. He, however, continued
to preach his ' mission ' as before. He was now declared an outlaw,
and his death was decreed, yet nobody dared to touch him. At last,
his expulsion from Smyrna was resolved upon by the municrpal
authorities. Four apostles one of them a reconverted Jew, who
had previously turned Christian followed him on his way to
Saloniki, where he arrived in 1659, having gathered a vast number
of disciples, mostly wealthy, on his road. His extraordinary personal
beauty and his fiery eloquence soon brought the most influential
Jewish inhabitants on his side, and his cabbalistic formulas and
prayers were adopted into the ritual of their synagogue. Two years
later, however, he had to leave Saloniki, where powerful antagonists
had risen in the meantime, and went first to Palestine, and soon
after to Alexandria, accompanied by several thousand disciples.
Here his power and influence grew so rapidly, that the revenues of
the commonwealth to be founded by the new Messiah, and the ways
and means of supporting the wars he was going to wage, were
seriously taken into consideration. In 1664, no fewer than about
So,ooo people belonged to the new empire ; and in the following
year, Sabbathais and six disciples, all clad in white raiments,
with garlands on their heads, proclaimed aloud in the streets of
Alexandria that the Messianic reign would begin within a few
months, and the Temple be rebuilt next year. Somewhat later, he
returned to Jerusalem ; and the resurrection, to take place within
six years, and the deposition of the sultan, whose crown would
be placed upon Sabbathais's head, were proclaimed far and near.
Upon this all the Jews of Asia, Africa, and Europe were divided
into two camps. Those who believed, finding all the predicted
signs fulfilled now, sold everything they had, in order to get ready-
money for their journey to, and final abode in, the new capital,



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

Jerusalem ; others, and among them some of the highest spiritual
authorities, declared all the pretended Messiah's miracles to be
cabbalistic tricks, and himself an impostor. Notwithstanding this,
when Sabbathais returned to his native place, Smyrna, he was
received with full royal honours. Meanwhile, the attention of the
Divan was drawn to this movement, and Mohammed IV., then in
Adrianople, ordered the grand vizier to secure the person of Sabba-
thais, and to commit him to prison, until the investigations set on foot
should be concluded. Accordingly, two agas, with their janizaries,
were sent to apprehend him ; but they returned without having
effected the order, not having dared 'to stretch forth their hand
against the sacred man.' He now offered to surrender voluntarily,
and was committed as prisoner of state to Kuthajah, where he
received visits and deputations from all parts. Being at last brought
before the sultan, his courage failed him, and he declared himself to
be nothing more than a simple rabbi : it was only his disciples, he
averred, who had called him a Messiah. The sultan then proposed
to test his ' mission.' Three poisoned arrows were to be shot at him.
Did these prove harmless, he, the sultan, would at once range him-



Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 51 of 58)