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John Joyce, 1784 (ca.)-1808 and Peter Matthias, ca. 1782-1808
Confession of John Joyce, Alias Davis, Who Was Executed on Monday, the 14th of March, 1808. For the Murder of Mrs. Sarah Cross; With an Address to the Public and People of Colour. Together with the Substance of the Trial, and the Address of Chief Justice Tilghman, on His Condemnation. Confession of Peter Mathias, Alias Matthews, Who Was Executed on Monday, the 14th of March, 1808. For the Murder of Mrs. Sarah Cross; With an Address to the Public and People of Colour. Together with the Substance of the Trial, and the Address of Chief Justice Tilghman, on His Condemnation
Philadelphia: Printed for the benefit of Bethel Church, 1808.


John Joyce (b. 1784), a free black living in Philadelphia, was sentenced to death and hanged on March 14, 1808 for the robbery and murder of Sarah Cross, a white shop owner. Information about Joyce's life prior to his crime is known only through his published Confession of John Joyce. He was born in slavery to a mistress named Sarah Saunders, in West River, Maryland. Around age fourteen, he "left her," presumably running away to join the United States Navy, which took him to Boston, Massachusetts (p. 12). After serving in the Navy for seven years, he returned to Washington, D.C. and married a woman with whom he had two children, although he acknowledges fathering two additional children outside of the marriage. He returned to sea, and when he came back to discover that his wife had been unfaithful and "cohabited with another man" in his absence, he left her (p. 13). Joyce then committed his first unlawful act by stealing a horse and running to Philadelphia, where he worked as a coachman and stableman, keeping jobs for very short periods of time. As a tavern waiter, Joyce "became acquainted with Mrs. Cross, who kept a shop in Blackhorse-alley, being frequently sent there on errands" (p. 13).

Peter Mathias, or Matthias, (b. 1782), a free black living in Philadelphia, was also hanged on March 14, 1808, for the robbery and murder of Sarah Cross. Information about Mathias's life prior to his crime is known only through his published Confession of Peter Mathias. He was born into slavery, in Queen Ann's county, Maryland, to the family of John Mead. He remained enslaved until Mead's death in approximately 1805, when he was allowed to purchase his freedom for two hundred dollars, payable over six years. Mathias worked towards the price of his manumission, first in Queen Ann's county, then in Dover and Wilmington, Delaware, and finally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mathias worked whatever jobs he could find, "picking oakume and at nights playing the violin at dances" (p. 31). He was on his way to play for a dance when Joyce convinced him to stop at Cross's shop. Both Joyce and Mathias claimed that Mathias was a bystander who played no intentional or active role in Cross's murder.

Richard Allen (1760-1831), publisher of the confessions, was a minister and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was born into slavery, the property of Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He and his family were sold in 1777 to Stokely Sturgis, who lived near Dover, Delaware. There Allen was exposed to Methodism and converted to Christianity. Allen's master eventually converted to Methodism and, newly convinced that slavery was wrong, allowed Allen to purchase his freedom in 1780. Allen worked numerous jobs while also serving as a Methodist minister to rural black and white communities in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He married a woman named Flora in 1791, and after her death, married a woman named Sarah in 1805. He had six children with her. Allen became a highly influential New England minister whose main concern, according to Frederick Mills, was to instruct "his African brethren," since few were able to attended public worship. In 1794, Allen helped found the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, the first independent black church in North America. Allen also founded a Methodist church, and recognizing friction among black and white Methodist congregations, urged the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He participated in numerous organizations that focused on the betterment of his people, including schools, charity and reform associations, and anti-slavery societies.

Confession of John Joyce and Confession of Peter Mathias were both published by Bishop Richard Allen "for the benefit of Bethel Church" in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1808 (pp. 1, 20). Criminal confession narratives became a popular genre in the nineteenth century, because of their moral instruction and sensational entertainment value. However, Allen, who ministered to Joyce and Mathias during their imprisonment, transcribed and published these confessions and his views on their crime with an additional social purpose. According to Richard Newman, Allen was worried by the sensational nature of the murder and that "stereotypes of marauding free blacks would resurface among white citizens, and compromise black claims to the fruits of American nationhood" (p. 151). Through his introduction to the pamphlets and the confessions' emphasis on the men's moral shortcomings, Allen argued that their crimes were neither "racial" nor "borne of blacks' innate will to harm whites" but were due to moral failures that "afflicted white as well as black, rich as well as poor, powerful as well as powerless citizens" (p. 151). Through the pamphlets, Allen sought to mollify white anger and fear while also exhorting the free black community to elevate the entire race by shunning the immoral behaviors Joyce and Mathias had embraced.

The Confession of John Joyce and Confession of Peter Mathias were published as separate pamphlets but are combined on the DocSouth website in a dual publication. Preceding the confessions, each pamphlet contains a copyright statement that names Richard Allen as author; Allen's preface, titled "Address To The Public, And People Of Colour"; an account of the trial testimony "As it appeared in one of the public Papers"; and the address of presiding judge Chief Justice Tilghman made upon their condemnation (pp. 3, 6, 21, 24). The more vivid and gruesome particulars of Cross's murder are found in the newspaper account of the trial and witness testimony. Tilghman's address excoriates Joyce and Mathias for taking the life of "a harmless, industrious old woman, a widow, helpless, and incapable of resistance," noting (in confirmation of Allen's fears) that "You have injured society in general, and the people of your own colour in particular" (pp. 10, 11). Tilghman admonishes them to "be roused to a quick sense of your guilt, and of the necessity of immediate repentance" (p. 11).

The confessions that follow these sections provide a very brief history of Joyce's and Mathias's early lives—both were born into slavery and acknowledge early tendencies towards immorality and a lack of religious interest—and account for their actions up until the night of Cross's murder. Joyce, however, takes full responsibility for the events of the night, protesting: "I conceived the plan of the murder, but did not relate it to Peter, at that, or any other time; and he (Peter) is innocent" (p. 14). Mathias confirms that he was unaware of Joyce's plans, though he is still convicted and executed for complicity in Cross's death. Allen attended each man during imprisonment and transcribed and published their confessions. A key feature of each narrative is the conversion that occurs prior to each man's execution. Revealing the men's repentance, profession of faith, and anticipation of heavenly forgiveness was not only the desired outcome of the judicial convictions but also the completion of the moral allegory Allen sought to portray through the publication of these narratives.

Works Consulted: Cohen, Daniel A., Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, c2006; Mills, Frederick V., "Allen, Richard," American National Biography Online, 8 April 2009; Newman, Richard S., Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, New York: New York University Press, 2008, 151-155.

Jenn Williamson

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