CAPTAIN JOHN LANCEY
Executed at Execution Dock, 7th of June, 1754, for burning a Ship at the Instigation of a Member of Parliament
THIS unfortunate man fell a dupe to an artful and wicked villain, his employer, who at the time was a disgraceful Member of the House of Commons, and who, to avoid the punishment due to his crimes, fled, and left the unfortunate subject whose case is before us a victim to his baseness.
Captain John Lancey was a native of Bideford, in Devonshire, respectably born and well educated. As he gave early proofs of an inclination for a seafaring life he was taught navigation, was attentive to his studies, and gave proofs of a goodness of disposition that promised a better fate than afterwards attended him.
Lancey was sent to sea as mate of a ship, of which Mr Benson, a rich merchant at Biddeford, was the proprietor. Lancey, having married a relation of Benson's, was soon advanced to the command of the vessel. This Benson was Member of Parliament for Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and what kind of character he deserved will appear in the sequel.
After Lancey had returned from a long voyage he was for a considerable time confined to his bed by a violent illness, the expense of which tended considerably to impoverish him. When he had partly recovered, Benson told him that he proposed to refit the ship in which he had formerly sailed; that Lancey should have the command of her; that he (Benson) would insure her for more than double her value, and then Lancey should destroy the vessel.
This proposal appeared shocking to Lancey, who thought it but a trial of his honesty, and declared his sentiments, saying that he would never take any part in a transaction so totally opposite to the whole tenor of his conduct.
For the present nothing more was said; but soon afterwards Benson invited Lancey and several other gentlemen to dine with him. The entertainment was liberal; and, Captain Lancey being asked to stay after the rest of the company were gone, Mr Benson took him to a summer-house in the garden, where he again proposed destroying the ship, and urged it in a manner that proved he was in earnest.
Captain Lancey hesitated a short time on this proposal and then declined to have any concern in so iniquitous a scheme, declaring that he would seek other employment rather than take any part in such a transaction. But Benson, resolving if possible not to lose his agent, prevailed on him to drink freely, and then urged every argument he could think of to prevail on him to undertake the business, promising to shelter him from punishment in case of detection.
Lancey still hesitated. But when Benson mentioned the poverty to which his family was reduced by his late illness, and offered such flattering prospects of protection, the unhappy man at length yielded, to his own destruction. A ship was now fitted out, bound for Maryland: and goods to a large amount were shipped on board, but relanded before the vessel sailed, and a lading of brickbats taken in by way of ballast. They had not been long at sea when a hole was bored in the side of the ship and a cask of combustible ingredients was set on fire, with a view to destroying her. The fire no sooner appeared than the Captain called to some convicted transports, then in the hold, to inquire if they had fired the vessel; which appears to have been only a feint to conceal the real design.
The boat being hoisted out, all the crew got safe on shore; and then Lancey repaired immediately to Benson to inform him of what had passed. Benson instantly dispatched him to a proctor, before whom he swore that the ship had accidentally taken fire, and that it was impossible to prevent the consequences which followed.
Lancey now repaired to his own house, and continued with as much apparent unconcern as if such a piece of villainy had not been perpetrated; but he was soon afterwards taken into custody by a constable, who informed him that oath had been made of the transaction before the Mayor of Exeter by one of the seamen. Lancey, however, did not express much concern, secure in his idea of protection from the supposed influence of Benson.
On the following day Lancey and one of the ship's crew were committed to the jail of Exeter, where they remained three months; and being then removed to London were examined by Sir Thomas Salisbury, the judge of the Admiralty Court, and committed to the prison of the Marshalsea. Application was afterwards made to the Court of Admiralty to admit them to bail; and there appeared to be no objection to granting the favour, but Benson, on whom they had depended for bail, had absconded, to escape the justice due to his atrocious crime.
Being committed to Newgate, they were brought to trial at the next Sessions of Admiralty held at the Old Bailey,when Lancey was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, but the other was acquitted.
Lancey lay in prison about four months after conviction, during which his behaviour was altogether consistent with his unhappy situation. His Christian charity was remarkable towards Benson; for, though that wicked man had been the cause and instigator of his ruin, yet he never once reflected on him, but imputed all the crime to himself, and appeared to behold it in its genuine light of deformity.
It was presumed, when he was first apprehended, that he might have been admitted an evidence against Benson, if he would have impeached him; but this he steadily refused to do.
His devotional exercises were exemplary: he attended prayers in the most regular manner, and gave every proof of his contrition. He was accompanied to the place of execution by two clergymen; and, having confessed his guilt in a speech to the surrounding multitude, he underwent the sentence of the law on the 7th of June, 1754, at Execution Dock, in the 27th year of his age.