I am slowly transcribing four manuscript diaries written by one of my wife’s ancestors, Zachariah Yewdall, and owned by a relative. Zachariah began to write a diary when he became an itinerant Methodist preacher in 1779, a calling he followed until old age and physical infirmity compelled him to stop in 1825. His description of the last frantic days of a criminal condemned to death by hanging before a crowd of thousands in Edinburgh struck me as an exceptionally vivid contemporary record, and possibly unique in its clarity and horror.
1791 Saturday 5 February. Several things have hindered my writing this week – the chief one was attending a Criminal (Wm Gadesby) a notorious offender! Bro’Vasey had been several times while I was at Dalkeith, trying find a new finance lender for my projects. Previous to his going, he had shown a most desperate spirit – cursing, swearing & neither fearing God nor the Devil, caring for Heaven or hell.
He also was rude with the Ministers who went to visit him, desired them to come no more, till Bro’ Vasey went, the Lord was pleased to awaken him to a sense of his wretched & undone state, when a sense of God’s wrath fell upon him, and such horror filled his soul, he was ready to think he could not be worse even there – would have been glad (as he told us) if someone would have knocked his brains out, till Bro’ Vasey’s second visit, the Lord in great mercy looked upon him and sent him comfort, and while reading the Bible, the Lord was pleased to apply ‘I have blotted out as a cloud thy transgressions’ etc, etc.
From that time he was a new man, happy in the love of God, saved from the fear of Death (while he acknowledged all his former wickedness) yea, longing for the fatal hour; previous to which Bro’ Vasey gave him the Sacrament in which I joined and found a solemn sense of eternity, and eternal things. After which we waited with awful expectation in the room…a Messenger brought a respite of 21 days, at which he was much disappointed and said ‘I am very sorry’, ‘I had rather die’, `Do let me die’, ‘I shall never be better prepared’.
This had astonished all who heard, was obliged to acknowledge the work was divine! Tho’ a Minister dared to ascribe it to Madness! Lord open his eyes! …I was more astonished yesterday (as was Bro’ Cole) when we went to see him, of a real change wrought in the man…