The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 5: December 2006
Documents, Artefacts and Imagery
The Life and Dying Confessions of James Hamilton, Executed for the Murder of Major Benjamin Birdsall, Nov. 6, 1818, Albany
In November 1818, Private James Hamilton of the United States Rifle Regiment was executed for the murder of Major Benjamin Birdsall, which had taken place the previous July. Shortly before his death, Hamilton dictated his life story to one Calvin Pepper who published it as a pamphlet in New York in 1819. Hamilton was not only a soldier who served in the American army during the War of 1812 but a lifelong criminal and his personal story is a fascinating insight into the lower strata of American society in the early 19th century.
James Hamilton was born in New York in 1791. His mother died shortly after his birth or abandoned him -- it is not clear from his account -- and his father was an alcoholic who gave his child to another family to be raised but this family seems to have passed him along and he grows up in a succession of what would today be called foster homes. Hamilton did receive some schooling and was literate but early evinced criminal tendencies, committing his first theft at the tender age of four! Between 13 and 18 he was apprenticed to a series of tradesmen in the outskirts of New York but these apprenticeships never lasted long as Hamilton either beats his masters or fellow apprentices, steals money from them, or simply runs off. At age 18 in 1809 he marries one Catharine Pullis of New York and attempts to settle down,
Hamilton eventually returned to his wife but did not tarry long and, for the next three years lived an itinerant life, sometimes shipping out as a sailor (making at least one voyage to Europe) and sometimes living on shore "doing no business, constantly gambling, drinking, and visiting houses of ill repute." In between wanderings, his home base is not with his wife (who conceived two children by him) in New York but in Boston at the house of one Richard Connelly in the "Tin Pot" district of that city. It is at this house that Hamilton becomes acquainted "with a prostitute, named Sally Smith, and she, together with one Charlotte Hatch, handsomely supported me, they often contending and fighting on my account." By the spring of 1812 Hamilton has moved to Albany where he works for short periods but falls into debt. Learning that soldiers are exempt from the bailiffs, he promptly enlists in the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment for a term of five years.
Surprisingly, Hamilton seems to have been a good soldier when he was sober. He fights with the 6th Infantry at York and Fort George in the spring of 1813 although he does not provide too much detail of these actions. In June of that year he is captured at the battle of Beaver Dams and confined in prisons at Quebec City and Halifax until released on parole in November. Hamilton notes that the rations in British POW camps were better than those he received in the U.S. army. He is paroled in November 1813 and, arriving back in Boston, finds he cannot serve with his unit as he has not been formally exchanged. Unsure what to do with him the army simply permits him to do as he pleases and he promptly takes up residence in his friend Connelly's house, renews his relationship with Sally Smith and revels in a life of "vice & dissipation" until he has spent the five months back pay he received for his time as a prisoner. He then enlists in the U.S. Navy to get the $30 recruiting bounty with which he plans to desert. He signs on with the crew of the USS Congress but when he learns that he will not be permitted ashore, informs the local army authorities of his situation and is taken off the frigate and sent to Fort Independence as a deserter.
At this point, early 1814, Hamilton's story becomes a catalogue of drunkenness, escapes from the guardhouse, minor thefts, living off the avails of prostitution, assaults and brawls, gambling, both civil and military arrests and general debauchery that lasts nearly three years. He deserts numerous times but is retaken or voluntarily turns himself until, finally, he is honorably discharged (!) from the army in 1817 with a land grant in the western territories. He travels to New York, sells his land grant for drink, marries a dedicated thief (his long suffering first wife having given up on him and remarried) but the newlyweds are unfortunately caught in possession of stolen goods and spend their honeymoon in prison. On his release, Hamilton tries twice to re-enlist in the army but is refused because he is lame but a third attempt is successful and, in early 1818, he joins Major Benjamin's Birdsall's company of the Rifle Regiment stationed at Albany. Six months later, so drunk that he cannot even remember the act, he commits the crime which leads to his eventual execution.
James Hamilton's story is a meandering but engrossing odyssey through the underworld of the early American republic. Hamilton seems to have been a literate and intelligent man and, although his story probably contains inevitable exaggeration, it does include enough detail in terms of dates, names, incidents and even the prices paid both for liquor and stolen goods to make it a creditable historical source.
I am grateful to Patrick Kavanagh of Buffalo, NY, for drawing this pamphlet to my attention.