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Mr. Wakefield's Letters to his Daughter-Attendance on four
condemned Criminals - Letters from the Rev. Dr. Parr and the Rev. Dr. Geddes - His Release from the Gaol.
In the spring of the year 1801, a more striking opportunity, than had yet occurred, presented itself of evincing the strength of Mr. Wakefield's sympathy with the distresses of those immediately around him. This circumstance forms the principal subject of the following letter to his daughter:
Dorchester Gaol, March 17, 1801.
MY DEAR GIRL,
It so happens that I am preparing to write a few lines to you upon your birth-day; which by an unusual occurrence was present to my recollection more punctually than to your mother's. We hope many a repetition of this anniversary to your life in health and peace; and that the next return of it may be celebrated with domestic congratulations un
dèr more favourable circumstances to us all, than the present juncture.
“ The assizes here ended last week; and the number of criminals exceeded that of any former occasion. Thirteen, I think, were condemned, and four are left for execution, three of whom have never been in a gaol before. They are now undergoing the previous torture of cold solitary cells, heavy irons, with bread and water, to continue existence, rather than sustain life.
It is not easy to determine which sensation is predominant; that of pity or indignation: of pity for miserable objects, with every temptation to commit offences, and no opportunities of instruction in the principles of happiness and virtue; or of indignation at those institutions, which doom to death unfriended culprits, whose transgressions are comparatively trivial, whilst the great delinquents in society are enjoying themselves in prosperity and pomp, without a single thought for the comfort and welfare of the indigent, who are thus resigned to the almost unavoidable effects of poverty and ignorance.
My languor and indisposition did not at all arise from restless impatience on the near approach of our liberation, on which I think
with satisfaction, chiefly as a deliverance from tyranny and insolence; expecting, when we are free, too many cares and anxieties.
After our affectionate remembrance to all your friends, receive, with the truest wishes of affection from your mother and sister, the most cordial expressions of love and solicitude from your father,
The case of these condemned criminals very much interested his feelings, already oppressed by the dangerous, and at length fatal illness of his youngest child. On application to the magistrates he obtained permission to visit them in their solitary cells, and exerted himself to the utmost in preparing their minds for the awful fate which awaited them.
Their desponding melancholy, when he first visited them, was great beyond expression. But his intimate knowledge of human nature enabled him to enter fully into their situation, and to communicate such instruction, and open to them such views as their previous extreme ignorance would allow, Here he endeavoured to put in practice, as far as his situation would permit, those methods of influencing the mind by kindness and persuasion, which he so strenuously enforced, as the
only rational mode of attempting the reformation of criminals."
He was highly gratified by observing the good effects of his attentions, and soon had the happiness to perceive, that
“ to each cell, a mild, yet mournful guest, “ Contrition came, and still’d the beating breast.”
Such was the result of his affectionate treatment of these unhappy men that they became at length perfectly composed and resigned to their fate, which all of them suffered with the most entire firmness and decent resolution.
Under the impression of these circumstances, Mr. Wakefield again wrote
wrote to his daughter.
Dorchester Gaol, March .., 1801,
MY DEAR CHILD,
Another melancholy event has agitated our feelings during the last week: the execution
See this sentiment particularly inculcated in the “ Address to the Judges," printed in the Appendix.
of four men for robberies. I felt an unusual interest in their situation; and as they were extremely ignorant, I was desirous that some attention should be paid them beyond the formal and unimpassioned duties of the chaplain.
The time was short, but I obtained leave from the magistrates to visit them, and was with them five different times. I employed the opportunities to the utmost capacity of their attention and understanding; and I enjoyed the satisfaction of perceiving, as well as learning from the reports of their attendants, that their minds, in consequence of my.instructions and admonitions, from a rambling and confused sense of things, soon settled into that serenity of resignation, and decency of firmness, which their situation required.
It is universally allowed, that no men ever met death with more tranquil resolution, than these poor creatures. Nay, one who had been uncommonly dismayed at first, and had expected a reprieve, declared himself so resigned to suffer death, as to feel no desire of deliverance; and they welcomed the summons to the 'execution with a readiness, and even cheerfulness, that commanded the admiration of the beholders; whose lamentations and sorrows, and mine among the rest, formed a striking