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1803 A.D. : The Hanging of Joseph Samuel

Joseph Samuel may or may not be one of the great deeds of God. You'll have to try to decide, as I did.  But first, please consider.....

You can't read the Bible without seeing that there are a fair number of times in the scriptures that God intervenes to save 'one of His' that is being unfairly persecuted. Not every time, but many times.

Daniel was saved from the lion's den because the lions refused to kill and eat him - or to even harm him at all.  The Lord 'shut their mouths'.  But when Daniel's accusers were thrown into the den, they were devoured immediately. Of course, Daniel seems to have been a pretty sinless Prophet of God.  He is one of the few who seems to have an almost unblemished character.  I'm a Daniel too, but a different sort.  I have an ununblemished character. No mis-spelling.   

When Assyria under king Sennacharib attacked all of Israel and routed the Northern 10 tribes, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and their city of Jerusalem were saved from King Sennacharib's forces by the swift and mysterious death - in one night - of 185,000 of Sannacherib's soldiers as they slept. The Lord had sent His angel.

Jerusalem wasn't all that innocent, but Benjamin and Judah were honoring God more faithfully than the other 10 tribes to the North. So when Hezekiah the King of Judah went in humility to ask God to protect His imperiled people, that time God stepped in on their behalf.

Take 2 Kings Chapter 1 as another instance to consider.  Elijah's days.

When God's servant Elijah was living almost as a refugee because the times were so evil, the King of Israel, Ahaziah, became injured, and was near death. He sent messengers to enquire of a false god about whether he would live, so God sent Elija to intercept the king's messengers to say that, because the king enquired of a false god and not the real one, he would die.

The messengers returned and told their king, who realized from the physical description that his messengers gave him that this message was from God's prophet Elijah.

The king wanted to speak to Elijah about this message, but Elijah wasn't feeling too safe about going to the king of Israel in those days. The king realized that Elijah probably wouldn't want to come to his palace, and he was too hurt to go to Elijah. So the king sent a squad of 50 soldiers with their commander to a certain hill that Elijah was then known to be sitting upon. He gave them orders to bring Elijah, like a prisoner, into the presence of the king.

When the soldiers arrived at the hill where Elijah stayed, they spoke in a domineering way to Elijah, speaking threateningly and disrespectfully - ordering him, the 'man of God' - down off the hill.

Elijah said that if he truly was a man of God, fire should come down from the heavens upon them. Fire did come, and it burnt all of the 51 men where they sat - they were killed.

A second group of 50 soldiers with their commander was sent by Ahaziah when the king heard about the fate of the first. These, also believing in their own strength but not yet in God's, acted like the first company. They too disrespected a man of God - a chosen Prophet. So fire came down upon them, and they died.

A third company of 50 with their captain was sent, and they had heard all about what happened to the first two groups. Their captain got off his horse and asked, humbly and in fear, if Elijah would please find their lives precious, and accompany them to their king. God told Elijah not to fear the soldiers then, so Elijah came with them, not as a prisoner, but in dignity.

I'm sure that those men were very solicitous of his comfort and happiness as they travelled back to the king. I think Elijah looked at the faces of 51 very concerned travel companions as they rode that day. That group of 51 survived.

There are many other instances in scripture of Yahweh saving those that are His from dangers.  It's a frequent occurrence, in fact, and one of the great over-riding themes of the Bible.  Didn't Jesus die to save us all from  the threat of our own evil ways and His enemies' onslaught against us? 

Our Father Yahweh sometimes allows His servants to be mistreated. After all, He allowed our Lord Jesus to face much worse, and that was His own son. And how else can a servant earn their spiritual crown? If our flesh or our dignity were to be mistreated by God's enemies because of our work for God, that would be a very lucky thing for us. It's a good thing, not a bad thing....a great blessing, the beatitudes say, and the Apostle Paul also assures us of the same.

Sometimes God uses His servants to exhibit His sovereign power to the world. And at such times, they are protected people; no imaginable force could end their lives because God is protecting them. No weapon fashioned against God has, will, or could ever prevail.

But when God protects a man, He is protecting a sinner. After all, no man is sinless. Some of us are very sinful.

We're all guilty of some things.  Some of us are guilty of many things.  But we may not necessarily be guilty of the exact thing we're accused of. Such appears to have been the case of Joseph Samuel, who may or may not be an example of the great deeds of God.  Joseph Samuel seems to more greatly resemble the sinner who was dying of crucifixion beside Jesus - the one that the Lord granted salvation to - than he does a Daniel, or an Elijah.  But, both types have received great reprievals from Jesus, reprievals such as we ourselves hope to one day receive.  We will certainly be completely unworthy of that gift, but the Lord shed His blood for sinners, not the sinless.  So we all have that one great hope that He provided.    

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Joseph Samuel was a thief. He was surely a criminal, the writings about him say. He was born in Australia, in 1780. By 1801, as a 20 or 21 year old, he was a convicted thief, and was placed in an Australian prison.

But the security was lax there because the prison was surrounded by the Australian wilds, and it was believed that any escaped prisoner would not have much chance of surviving out there. This allowed him to escape the prison with some other men, and he beat the odds and didn't die in the wilderness.  Unreformed, he made it to Sidney where he soon joined what was essentially a crime gang.

Part of the gang conducted a robbery on the home of a wealthy woman. A policeman was killed .

Joseph Samuel was brought in for questioning, and the record gets a little murky at that point. Police at that time got their confessions in ways that might not be allowed today. Whether that particular burglary was one that Joseph Samuel took part in is probably indeterminable today. The sources I read said that he did confess, but it was a coerced confession.  But he apparently also had stolen coins on his person when he was arrested.   It's remotely possible that it was planted evidence, or that one of his fellow gang members repaid a debt or paid him with coins from the robbery, or maybe Joseph just really did take part in the robbery. 

But he apparently always did claim publically and privately that he had been no where near the murder scene at the time it occurred, but that he thought he knew who really did kill the policeman. It was another member of his gang. But he was pretty new in the gang. Perhaps that is why no one else in the gang seems to have stood up for him, though he did have other witnesses that corroborated that he was drunk and in a different part of town at the time the policeman was killed.

Yet he was the only gang member for whom enough evidence could be found for a trial. The others gang members had to be released.

There had been a robbery, a policeman had been killed, there was only one man in custody to punish, and so, even though the evidence for the crime of murder was poor... pretty questionable really.....they successfully convicted Joseph Samuel of murder and sentenced him to be hung by the neck until dead.

On the 26th of September, 1803, the hanging was scheduled to be conducted for Joseph and another convicted criminal at the town of Parramatta, Australia. A large crowd was gathered to witness the hangings.  They were essentially a social event for the people of the day in Australia, as was true in Europe and America, and many other parts of the world in those times as well. 

***Even 30 years ago, if you were an American walking around in a Saudi Arabian city and they were having an official beheading in the market square that day, the police would sometimes round up you and everyone else and make you watch.  It had a good effect on civic obedience to the law, it was felt.  Maybe they still do that today.*** 

Joseph had told everyone he knew that he was innocent of the murder, but he was going to hang for it.  Some who knew him, even some of his gang, had come there to watch him hang. Even the man that Joseph said was the real killer was there in the crowd.

The method used for hanging involved having the criminals stand in a horse drawn cart beneath a tree, and it would be driven out from under them, leaving them to hang and strangle. No long drop from the gallows yet, that would come decades later.  So when it was time, the two convicts were made to stand in the cart like that, and the hangman fit the nooses over the two condemned men's necks.

Prayers were said for their souls, and Joseph, in his last words, pointed out the gang member that was the murderer and charged that he was not guilty of the murder and shouldn't be hanging, but that man ought to be.  The man he pointed at began trying to shout him down, and pretty soon the hanging was moved along. Some in the crowd were beginning to say Joseph was an innocent man, though.

The wagon driver was told to drive, and the wagon moved forward out from beneath the feet of the two condemned men who stood noosed with their hands bound.

The one man dropped and began to strangle, but Joseph, hung with the same type of rope, dropped a short ways, then hit the ground and injured his ankle.  His rope had snapped.

This made the hanging awkward and kind of a botched mess. The wagon would have had to be backed up in such a way as to leave the one man still dangling and strangling. Some of the crowd was now crying out that this was a sign that Joseph was innocent, but the Marshall ordered that the sentence still needed to be carried out.

The rope was examined, and it appeared whole and undamaged, except that it had unexplainedly snapped.

Some recountings of this event report that the records say the rope was new hemp rope said to appear to be in good condition. It was of 5 cord braid, and it was rated to hold 1000 LBS (around 435 KG) for 5 minutes.

A 2nd noose of new rope of this kind was prepared. Joseph, with his injured ankle, was helped back up onto the cart, the new noose was fitted over his head, and the wagon was again driven out from under him. This time he fell, hit the end of the rope, and then kept slowly lowering until his feet touched the ground. The braids of the rope had somehow partially unwound themselves, it is reported, creating extra length which had lowered him to the earth. Joseph's neck was roughed up, but he was otherwise fine except for the ankle.

The crowd was appalled at this, and began to shout in a loud and unruly manner that this had to be from God - had to be divine intervention -  and that Joseph really must be innocent like he said he was. Most of them seemed to want him released. The lawmen grew a bit shaken by the events, and the outrage that was growing among the assembled crowd.

Again the rope was examined, and found to be normal looking rope, with no apparent reason for failing. And let's remember, this was the early 1800's, and rope was a very commonly used item in this rural land. Most people were in essence fairly qualified 'rope experts' back then, because rope was relied upon for so many important everyday uses.

But the law was the law, the verdict and sentence upon Joseph Samuel had been rendered, and the Marshalls had a 3rd rope prepared - very carefully this time I'm sure. It is likely they took an especially close look at the rope they intended to use this third time. How could they not have?

The first man now hung strangled to death as the cart was backed up under the tree yet again, and for a third time Joseph Samuel was forced to crawl up upon it, be fitted with a noose, and face his own demise.

The wagon was pulled forward as before, and the stunned crowd and lawmen watched Joseph fall and hit the end of his rope.....his third rope.....which promptly snapped, landing him unceremoniously upon the ground, again not greatly hurt.

At his point the crowd became nearly unmanagable and apparently unanimous in their opiniion that the Lord was not allowing this man to die because he was not guilty. He may not have been a very innocent man in some respects, but it was plain to them that he was not guilty of the crime of murder.

Some of the lawmen had also seen enough by now, and would have no more of it. At some point the fear of God has to prevail over the laws of men, and that point was finally reached. The third rope looked brand new, and there was no explanation in their minds for what had occurred. Yet they all had seen it.

One of them, who must have been a senior lawman on the scene, pronounced that the hanging would be officially delayed until the Governor could be informed, and he rode off into town to inform the Governor of this amazing series of events.

Meanwhile, a doctor who was on hand tended to the slightly injured but probably greatly shaken up Joseph, who was having a pretty harrowing day by most measures.

The Governor, upon hearing the details of it all from the mouths of such qualified and trustworthy witnesses as the lawmen who had been present, hurried to issue a full reprieve for Joseph Samuel, acknowledging these failed hangings as a sign from God that a mistake had been made.

Whatever really happened that day can't be known in our day, but what remains is that it was the nearly unanimous opinion of those who watched that God had acted to prevent a terminal injustice. Joseph Samuel, though no angel, was also apparently no murderer, and so he was released.

And again, this was an age where people knew the difference between a good rope and a bad one. Valuable horses and oxen were often tied up with them.  The water bucket at the well might have used a rope.  Lifting derricks for loading crops into the upper level of the barn may have as well.  And hangings were a matter of slow strangulation rather than the much longer neck snapping fall of the gallows which came into common use later.  A new rope in good condition should have been greatly more than equal to the task of hanging a man, and quite reliably was.  That's why they were used.

You might expect that Joseph Samuel would lead a changed life from that point on. If so, according to the record, you would be wrong. Joseph was soon enough in prison again for some other burglary crime, and while incarcerated, he and some fellow inmates engineered a jail break that involved stealing a boat once they got out. According to the source materials I found, Joseph and his fellow escapees were not seen again, and were presumed drowned or otherwise lost at sea.

Joseph seems not to have learned a lot from this remarkable foiled execution, but it is a story that even today is remembered in parts of Australia as a probable great act of God.

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