John Price Posey Hangs For His Crimes

John Price Posey Hangs For His Crimes

John Price Posey served as a Justice of the Peace before his friend passed away and he seemingly lost his mind.

Posey was hung for arson at a pivotal time in American history.

John Price Posey

John Price Posey grew up alongside John Parke Custis.  

Custis was stepson of George Washington and, therefore, Posey spent a great deal of his youth around the future President.

Posey was not from as wealthy a background as the Washington Household, though he was by no means poor (his uncle, Thomas, would be an early leader in the Louisiana Territory).  

By his late 20’s Posey became caretaker of Custis’ home. He also did several small favors for General Washington, taking care of certain business transactions while the Commander-in-Chief was serving in the Revolutionary War.

Justice of the Peace

By 1781, Posey had become successful enough in private business to be chosen as a Justice of the Peace. This position was similar to today’s small claims court.

It was then, however, that Custis passed away.

The loss of his friend must have flipped a switch in Posey’s brain because he soon began having run-ins with the law.

A Life of Crime

Posey was accused of embezzling funds from the Custis Estate. He was eventually convicted of breaking into the property of Custis’ young son and stealing a cow. John was removed from his Justiceship due to these events.

Within five years, Posey was arrested again. He received a fine for committing fraud when he destroyed an arbitration bond. This was a legal document and therefore unacceptable.


Posey’s behavior went from bad to worse in 1788. He was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentenced to a month in prison.

Somehow, Posey escaped from the jail. He returned the next day with a friend and two slaves. They burned the jail down.

The gang then proceeded to county clerk’s office. This building was burned as well.

The real tragedy in all of this is that the county clerk’s office had a significant collection of documents from the greater New Kent County, Virginia area. These papers would have been invaluable to historians today.


The men were captured the next day.  

Posey was tried and convicted of arson. This was a capital crime at the time, and his punishment was death.

Despite reaching out for assistance to many of his well-placed friends, no one attempted to persuade Governor Edmund Randolph to stay his execution.

John Price Posey was hung from the gallows on January 25, 1788.

The Larger Circumstances

To put some perspective on this high profile execution, John Price Posey was put down in the middle of the Constitution Ratification Debates. Five States had already ratified, with Massachusetts a week away from approval.

The Federalist Papers were still being written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in an attempt to convince the people of New York to ratify the new government.

Washington, long fed up with Posey’s behavior, ignored his requests for help.  Simultaneously, he was quietly waiting to see if the new government would be approved (although he was privately writing to high profile Virginians to gain their support).

As contradicting as it may seem for Revolutionaries, sentencing a middle-class man to death for a crime where no one was hurt speaks volumes to the Founding Father’s desire to maintain law and order.

What do you think? Does the punishment fit the crime or was it a bit too severe? Let me know in the comments.

For more about Founders who were arrested, click on our articles about Daniel Shays and Paul Revere.

Since there is not book on Posey (or the trial at all for some reason), I decided to recommend one of my favorite books…’Adopted Son.’ This book is about the relationship between Washington and Lafayette. Since Washington had not children of his own (and Custis was a bit of a disappointment) he took the young Frenchman in as his own. Pick it up from the Amazon affiliate link below.

And of course, don’t forget to subscribe to the email list for a new Founder every morning.

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