Archive for May, 2008

1718: John “Jack Ketch” Price, former hangman

1 comment May 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1718, the former common hangman got a taste of his own medicine.

As the 18th and especially 19th centuries unfolded and executions became more private, orderly and “humane,” the executioner’s office became more subtle and bourgeois. In the early 1700’s, however, it was commonly filled by a character who might just as easily have been on the other end of the rope. And once in a while … they were.

One disreputable character who performed the office for twenty years and more following the Stuart Restoration, Jack Ketch, lent his very name to the position (and its accoutrement — e.g., “Jack Ketch’s knot,” the hangman’s noose).

Our day’s victim, by the Christian name of John Price, was “Jack Ketch” in 1714-1715 until his debts caught up with him, and if the Newgate chronicle be believed wasn’t half-bad at the gig. Alas that he lost the position: his life in every other respect is reported by our sanctimonious interlocutors as one of drunken savagery.*

In such a state a couple of years later, he beat a woman to death during an attempted (or actual) rape at Bunhill Fields, at which location the law compelled him, in the parlance of the times, to “dance with Jack Ketch.” The prospect of hanging concentrated old Ketch’s mind wonderfully on the task of not missing one precious moment that might be spent drinking.

[H]e was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva [i.e., gin] … As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution

One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.

Price/Ketch was not the only public executioner to find himself on the receiving end of his former trade, but he does seem to have the distinction of being the only one who was also gibbeted — his carcass hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway.

Update: John Price’s career narrated by Lucy Inglis of Georgian London in a podcast interview with Early American Crime.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,The Worm Turns

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1431: Joan of Arc

May 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1431, Joan of Arc (also Jeanne d’Arc, even though d’Arc wasn’t really her name at all) was burned at the stake for heresy in the marketplace of Rouen, France.

A Joan of Arc statue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Very much has been written and said about this strange figure, the Maid of Orleans — not quite so much larger than life as she seems otherworldly to it: in her mystical exaltation, in her unthinkable elevation from the illiterate peasantry to military command (and bizarrely effective intervention in the intractable Hundred Years’ War).

Apotheosis to the ranks of France’s national heroes is the least of it; Joan’s iconography extends well outside her homelands and well beyond the project of feudal restoration that was her short life’s concern.

Her myth has had a robust afterlife, but her accomplishments in the flesh were quite real — staggering, even. At the nadir of France’s fortunes, she convinced the French dauphin Charles VII of her divine inspiration in April 1429 and, far more aggressive (and some would say lucky) than the army’s noble commanders, immediately relieved the English siege of Orleans. By July, she had captured Reims, where Charles was crowned king.

The next year, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the British, who in turn subjected her to an ecclesiastical inquiry — what became a remarkable, exhaustively documented three-week interrogation, in which she deftly matched wits with academic persecutors over the reality and nature of her divine visions.

She was immediately considered a martyr by her own side — and twenty years later, when the war had finally ended, another court reversed the verdict against her — but her universal appeal and cultural ubiquity remained a long time off.*

“Dark-minded man!”
The Maid of Orleans answered, “to act well
Brings with itself an ample recompense.
I have not reared the oriflamme of death —
Now God forbid! The banner of the Lord
Is this; and, come what will, me it behooves,
Mindful of Him whose minister I am,
To spare the fallen foe: that gracious God
Sends me a messenger of mercy forth,
Sends me to save this ravaged realm of France,
To England friendly as to all the world;
Only to those an enemy, whose lust
Of sway makes them the enemies of man.”

Robert Southey

The romantic 19th century took up her standard when the trial records were uncovered — liberals cottoned to her lowly birth, conservatives to her monarchist project, all France to her proto-nationalism, all Catholics to her faith (she was elevated to sainthood in the early 20th century; May 30 is also her feast day). The Vichy government and the French Resistance both claimed her in World War II. Her gender and sexuality have invited modern attention, just as they did for her judges: she works (anachronistically, of course) as a girl-power pop feminism icon, and her masculine social role gives her queer cachet; she made a point of keeping her virginity, but may have been sexually assaulted in prison, an event that figures in Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.

Joan stands equal to such varied identities because the mysteriously personal qualities of her story invite the observer into it, and those qualities hold precisely because of her fiery end this day. What would Joan have been in five or ten years’ time, had she escaped capture or held to her temporary renunciation of wearing men’s clothes (the head-scratching but subtly profound charge that finally doomed her)? An aging commander with the gloss off her, a partisan of some faction of the abject French court, a hostage somewhere being ransomed for gold plate or quietly poisoned off?

Her myth and its antithesis work because she came in radiance from dust, and followed her conscience — her God, her will, her destiny, or what have you — back to dust.

Though adapted many times for the screen, the definitive Joan of Arc film remains the 1928 silent treament La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, scripted largely from the original trial transcripts. The movie’s lead Maria Falconetti — and indeed the very silence of the medium — convey something of that mysterious, multifaceted meaning left to us tantalizingly suspended between the 19-year-old who stood at the stake this day and the legend that arose from her ashes.

Books about Joan of Arc

(The Mark Twain book is in the public domain and available free at Project Gutenberg in both text (part 1 | part 2) and audio (part 1 | part 2) forms.)

* Shakespeare, for instance, writing Henry VI Part I about Charles VII’s English opposite number, has Joan in a rather more negative light than a modern reader is used to seeing — as a witch and a whore. In her last battlefield appearance, she summons demons …

Enter Fiends
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustom’d diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are cull’d
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.

… who fail to aid her although she offers them her body. Later, condemned to the stake, she cravenly tries to plead her belly by claiming that she slept with several other characters.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,France,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Myths,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Soldiers,The Supernatural,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1593: John Penry, Shakespeare’s midwife?

4 comments May 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a Welsh divine with a poor impression of the Church of England was hustled off from dinner to be strung up for sedition.

Dismayed by the poor quality of pastors in his native Wales — men of poor character, poor education, and poor command of Welsh — John Penry was one of many calling for a reformed Episcopal clergy. Critiques of his type formed the germ of the Puritan movement already underway, which would blossom after his death.

Penry would have been around to see all that if he hadn’t hacked off the realm’s chief vicar by running a salty underground press, most notably publishing the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate.

(These satiric treats can be savored here. The identity of their author(s) has always been debated — Penry himself is one candidate, though not a fashionable one today, as his attributed writing seems too earnest to have come from the same pen as Martin Marprelate.)

Hold the Dessert

The Oxford man dodged the law for a good three years in the Scottish reaches, until he couldn’t resist moving to London, where (fittingly) a local clergyman recognized him.

The mere draft — nasty, but uncirculated — of a petition sufficed for the condemnation on grounds of sedition, and the annoyed Archbishop had the pleasure of inking his John Hancock on the Welshman’s death warrant.

Penry seems to have had a few friends in high places and some hope of cheating the executioner; he must have been taken by surprise when the sheriff burst in during the late afternoon this day to haul him immediately to a gallows at St. Thomas a Watering — unannounced, the better to keep attendance down,* with the prisoner denied the customary parting speech.

“Hang him with his pen”

But was Penry’s ill turn a boon to the world of literature?

The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious.

Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.

The Welsh Martyr

Shakespeare aside, Penry remains “the Welsh martyr” to this day, reckoned the greatest Protestant martyr of his land. (For more about him, a sympathetic 19th century tract, John Penry, the Pilgrim Martyr, is available free from Google books.)

The injury of his draconian sentence is so far from forgotten in Wales that — hot off the presses — the 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked for a mea culpa on behalf of his 16th century predecessor.

Coincidentally, John Penry is also the name of a murderer and longtime death row prisoner in the USA, once the subject of a landmark decision** permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. That modern Penry is now serving a life sentence.

* Penry’s family and friends didn’t know about the hanging until it had already happened.

** Since reversed.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1987: Valery Martynov, betrayed by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen

9 comments May 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1987, a once-promising American intelligence asset was executed with a single gunshot to the head in Moscow — his treachery exposed by two of the most infamous Soviet moles in U.S. intelligence history.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB posted to the Soviets’ official Washington, D.C. offices in 1980, Martynov had turned in 1982 and begun funneling intelligence to the CIA and FBI under the cryptonym “Gentile”. Truth be told, he was a mediocre source, but he was a younger officer with the chance to grow into a more important asset in the years ahead.

Fate had sized him up as an extra in someone else’s story instead.

In 1985, “the year of the spy” to those in the know for the volume of important cloak-and-dagger work, the Soviets landed two highly-placed moles in the American intelligence world — Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI.

Both those notorious turncoats shopped Martynov (among others); duly informed, Russian spymaster Victor Cherkashin conned Martynov into returning to Moscow where he could be arrested.

Here’s a 2001 New York Times account on how it went down:

[Soviet counterintelligence officer Vitaliy] Yurchenko, unhappy with his lot as a defector [after coming over to the Americans in August 1985], suddenly redefected back to the Soviet Union in early November [1985, still]. Mr. Cherkashin has said in a previous interview that Mr. Yurchenko’s redefection presented an opportunity to lure Valeriy Martynov, a K.G.B. officer in the Washington station working for the F.B.I., back to the Soviet Union: The K.G.B. arranged for Mr. Martynov to serve as a member of an honor guard escorting Mr. Yurchenko back to Moscow.

When they arrived back in the Soviet Union, it was Mr. Martynov who was arrested; Mr. Yurchenko was given a job at the K.G.B. again.

No honor among thieves.

Martynov left a widow, Natalia, and two children. But he is remembered and written about exclusively in the context of the men who sold him out, who taken separately or together rate among recent history’s most catastrophic intelligence failures. (Or triumphs, depending on your point of view.)

Martynov’s ultimate tragedy, of course — one he shares with his more infamous American betrayers in this shadowland chess match — is that not by all the information he provided, and neither by his life nor his death, was the Cold War protracted or abbreviated by one single hour.

Books about the Ames and Hanssen cases

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Russia,Shot,Spies,Treason,USA,USSR

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1610: Francois Ravaillac, because Paris was worth more than a mass

7 comments May 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1610, the fanatical Catholic who assassinated Henri IV of France was ripped apart on the Place de Greve.

The road to this man’s calvary begins long before his infamous crime, even long before the birth of his illustrious victim.

The Protestant Reformation — so richly represented in the executioner’s annals — had fractured France in the 16th century.

After decades of voluptuously indecisive Catholic-versus-Hugeunot slaughter, matters had finally been settled by the man upon whom French absolutism would erect its (ill-fated) edifice.

Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch and a Huguenot, had unified the country by the sword, capped by his memorably politic conversion to Catholicism in 1593 to win over the holdout capital of Paris — the occasion of his understated declaration that “Paris is worth a mass”.

Let us tarry here to appreciate “the good king Henri” in a kaleidoscope of flattering artwork to the tune of Vive Henri IV, the monarchy’s unofficial anthem after its subject’s passing:

Did you catch that last image?

Henri’s fine gesture of sectarian triangulation and the reign of relative calm it inaugurated were naturally resented by godly partisans of both camps who either considered his conversion a betrayal or considered the king a closet Protestant.

At the crazed end of this latter spectrum, we meet our day’s principal, Francois Ravaillac.

Readers unconstrained by time may enjoy this Tolstoyan trek into the regicide’s mind and milieu, but it will suffice us to say that the modern shotgun-wielding postal clerk who just seemed like a quiet, harmless type to all his coworkers might like the cut of Ravaillac’s jib. A bit of a loner, a bit of a professional washout, with a penchant for religious visions and a passel of ill-arranged grievances … by this point in the movie, that’s about what you expect the police profiler to be reciting.*

It is only right that such a contemporary-sounding lone nut story ought to have a vigorous conspiratorial counternarrative.

There has always been a strong suspicion that behind Ravaillac’s hand was the work of the scheming Catholic Duc d’Epernon, perhaps even with the complicity of Henri’s wife Marie de’ Medici, who had conveniently been crowned as queen the day before the murder** and promptly teamed up with Epernon to cement an alliance with a traditional French rival, the ultra-Catholic Habsburgs.

Balzac, for one, had no doubt about it:

all of [her] actions were prejudicial to France … Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV.; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her ‘intimate’ was d’Epernon, who did not ward off Ravaillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. … [T]he victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was due solely to the discovery the cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII, of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.

The historical jury is out on that question, presumably for good.

If Ravaillac was a conspirator, he proved to be a damned good one, denying under repeated torture that he had any accomplices. On this date, the tortures reached their crescendo and conclusion — to the horrible delight of the Parisian mob, as reported by Alistair Horne (via The Corner):

On 27 May, still protesting that he had acted as a free agent on a divinely inspired mission, Ravaillac was put to death. Before being drawn and quartered, the lot of the regicide, on the Place de Grève scaffold he was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then torn by pincers. Then his arms and legs were attached to horses which pulled in opposite directions. One of the horses “foundered,” so a zealous chevalier offered his mount; “the animal was full of vigour and pulled away a thigh.” After an hour and a half of this horrendous cruelty, Ravaillac died, as the mob tried to prevent him receiving last rites. When he finally expired,

“…the entire populace, no matter what their rank, hurled themselves on the body with their swords, knives, sticks or anything else to hand and began beating, hacking and tearing at it. They snatched the limbs from the executioner, savagely chopping them up and dragging the pieces through the streets.”

Children made a bonfire and flung remains of Ravaillac’s body on it. According to one witness, Nicholas Pasquier, one woman actually ate some of the flesh. The executioner, supposed to have the body of the regicide reduced to ashes to complete the ritual demanded by the law, could find nothing but his shirt.

Ravaillac was the last Frenchman drawn and quartered for a century and a half — but his punishment as a regicide formed the precedent for that handed down in 1757 to Damiens.

* No need, though, as Francois wasn’t hard to catch: he stepped up to Henri’s carriage when it was caught in a traffic jam on May 14, 1610, and stabbed the king to death plain as can be. He was lucky (sort of) to avoid a lynching.

** Rubens later painted a gaudy celebration of this event.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1923: Albert Leo Schlageter, Nazi martyr

5 comments May 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1923, a German paramilitary was shot by a French firing squad near Dusseldorf for his anti-occupation sabotage efforts.

Albert Leo Schlageter, a World War I veteran and conservative Catholic who signed up with the right-wing Freikorps and tangled with communists after the war, joined the fledging Nazi party when it absorbed his Freikorps unit in 1922.

The next year, France occupied the Ruhr to secure war reparations payments then crippling Germany, which would do much to speed the rise of the Nazis in the years ahead.

Schlageter was nabbed sabotaging railroad lines in resistance, and Berlin’s protests didn’t help him much.

He became a Nazi martyr literally overnight, and as the nationalist right ascended, the place of his passion was marked with a 90-foot cross and used for party rallies. His name christened a naval vessel, a Luftwaffe fighter wing, two SA units, and several Nazi badges and decorations:

A 1923 NSDAP pin honoring Schlageter.

There was also a play about him, Schlageter, whose debut performance was for Hitler’s first birthday as Chancellor in 1933. The most famous work of Hanns Johst, it was notable for the line “Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre, entsichere ich meinen Browning!” — “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun!” — subsequently adopted by so many gun-reaching Nazi kulturkampfers that it is provenance is regularly misattributed.

Unsurprisingly, Schlageter’s cult has waned into obscurity since 1945. But one needs not endorse his philosophy or its horrifying posthumous expressions to appreciate the man’s struggle against foreign occupation and bravery in what he took to be the country’s interests.

For the Communist Karl Radek, this martyr of the right stood for many more whose sincere intentions had been bent against themselves — “those German Fascisti, who honestly thought to serve the German people.” Addressing the Communist International’s Executive Committee in the days after the officer’s execution, Radek anticipated Schlageter pointing the way to a future very different from that which came to pass:

Schlageter, a courageous soldier of the counter-revolution, deserves to be sincerely honoured by us, the soldiers of the revolution.

Schlageter went … to the Ruhr, not in the year 1923 but in the year 1920. Do you know what that meant? He took part in the attack of German capital upon the Ruhr workers; he fought in the ranks of the troops whose task it was to bring the miners of the Ruhr under the heel of the iron and coal kings. The troops of Waters, in whose ranks he fought, fired the same leaden bullets with which General Degoutte quelled the Ruhr workers. We have no reason to believe that it was from selfish motives that Schlageter helped to subdue the starving miners.

The way in which he risked his life speaks on his behalf, and proves that he was convinced he was serving the German people.

[The German Communist Party] believe[s] that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind; that they should not spill their hot, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.

Schlageter himself cannot now hear this declaration, but we are convinced that there are hundreds of Schlageters who will hear it and understand it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Language,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers

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1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger

31 comments May 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1979, John Spenkelink was electrocuted in Florida — the first man executed involuntarily in the U.S. since 1967.

A series of court decisions in the 1970’s had scrapped the country’s old death penalty institutions and obliged legislators to restructure the process. Now, the new architecture was in place and the decade-long hiatus in actual executions was drawing to a close.

Gary Gilmore had earned trivia-question notoriety as the first put to death under the new regime two years before, but Gilmore was always an outlier, a bizarrely active exponent of his own death who greased the skids for himself.

Spenkelink was the true harbinger. For six years, a span which seemed long then but would today rate on the speedy side, Spenkelink resisted death with every tool at his disposal. Florida officials fought just as stubbornly to kill him.

An itinerant parolee, he had in 1973 shot a fellow drifter named Joseph J. Szymankiewicz.

Spenkelink claimed that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him, all of which seemed within the vicious character attested of the victim. But the killing itself was clearly not a moment of passion or immediate self-defense: Spenkelink had left their shared hotel room, returned with a gun, and shot his man in the back.

In the new Court-mandated balancing act between “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors whose intent was to harmonize unfair application of the death penalty, this evident premeditation is what doomed Spenkelink. (The fact that Spenkelink committed the crime for pecuniary gain — that is, to get back his own money — also militated against him. The Clark County (Ind.) Prosecutor’s site has some legal briefs in addition to media reports on the case.)

In the larger reality not circumscribed by legal briefs, the defendant wasn’t exactly Charles Manson. More considerable than the act itself was where it occurred (North Florida) and the rootless, friendless character of its author — a “white nigger”. As Florida Supreme Court Justice Richard Ervin put it:

As usual under “discretion,’ it is left to sentencing judges to determine in particular cases who will get death. We know intuitively who will: the poor, the underprivileged, the public defender clients, the blacks and other minority people, the mentally incompetent or those holding unpopular or unorthodox ideologies. The affluent usually escape the death penalty.

The result here is an old story, often repeated in this jurisdiction where the subconscious prejudices and local mores outweigh humane, civilized understanding when certain segments of the population are up for sentencing for murder.

Or in Spenkelink’s epigram, which he often signed to prison correspondence, “capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.”

The last of his 22 appeals* was rejected by the Supreme Court this very day. Ten minutes later, trussed hand and foot with each of his orifices stopped up and two shots of whiskey for the ride, Spenkelink was presented in Old Sparky to the event’s official witnesses.** It had been 15 years since the chair’s last use; prison officials didn’t remember how to operate it — but they managed to pull it off with no more than the electric chair’s average ration of gruesomeness.

Five minutes later, Spenkelink was declared dead — and the death penalty was back in America.†

* Filed by David Kendall, later to gain a measure of fame as Bill Clinton’s personal attorney during his impeachment.

** Spenkelink was gagged when the blinds were opened to the witnesses, and denied a final statement (his famous bon mot about those without the capital is sometimes mistakenly reported as his last words). Since the witnesses had not seen the prisoner brought in, rumors spread that he had fought the guards, even that his neck had been broken in the altercation and that he was dead or dying by the time the first 2,250-volt jolt hit him. This rumor in turn caused the state not only to exhume and autopsy Spenkelink, but to institute a policy of autopsying all executed prisoners … and the documentary trail created by this policy contributed to the Sunshine State’s later legal and public relations headaches with its execution protocols.

† Executions would remain freak events — one or two a year — until the mid-1980’s when they finally resumed taking place with regularity sufficient to return them to the everyday fabric of American life.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous Last Words,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,USA

1917: Dr. Arthur Waite, the Playboy Poisoner

3 comments May 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1917, a 29-year-old former dentist took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair — his poisoning career nipped in the bud by woman’s intuition.

Here’s the scenario, as sketched in the rip-roaring Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease on the eyes):

The first dentist in our collection, Dr. Waite, was a good looking raconteur, who most likely preferred playing tennis to practicing dentistry. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and after graduating from dental school went to South Africa to practice. Waite eventually left Africa under some suspicious accusations and returned to Michigan, where he wooed and married the daughter of John and Hannah Peck.

John Peck was a millionaire pharmacist who owned a reputable drug company in the city. The newlyweds were furnished with posh accommodations in New York City by the grateful Pecks. There, Arthur spent much of his time dabbling in the area of bacteriology, and also took on a mistress.

In January 1916, shortly after Hannah Peck arrived to visit the Waits in New York, she suddenly became ill and died. Her body was immediately cremated and returned to Michigan for burial. In March of the same year, John Peck also went to New York to console his daughter and her husband over the death of his wife. He too soon became ill and died. However, before his body could be cremated an anonymous telegram was received in Grand Rapids stating “suspicion aroused, demand autopsy.” Surprisingly, the autopsy indicated that John Peck was loaded with arsenic, and an investigation ensued.

The accusing finger eventually pointed to the playboy dentist, and he was taken in for interrogation. A search of his dwelling revealed numerous bacterial cultures, as well as texts dealing with toxicology. Under interrogation, Dr. Waite changed his story numerous times. First he stated that he had obtained arsenic for his father-in-law, who wanted to commit suicide to end his grief over the loss of his wife. Then Dr. Waite claimed his own body was inhabited by the spirit of an evil Egyptian priest, who had instructed him to kill his in-laws in order to gain their wealth. Eventually, Dr. Waite felt if he told what had actually happened the courts would find him insane, so he revealed the whole story of administering typhoid, pneumonia, diphtheria organisms, and arsenic while the Peck’s [sic] were undergoing work in his dental chair.

It did not take the jury long to see through the manipulations of Dr. Waite, and they convicted him of the murders. Dr. Waite was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on May 24, 1917.

That decisive anonymous tip, it emerged, came from a New Jersey schoolteacher named Elizabeth Hardwick, whose father, one Dr. Cornell, was cousin to the victim. Here’s how the New York Times reported it (pdf) a few years later, ruminating on the chancy breaks that sometimes solve criminal cases:

The day after Mr. Peck’s death, Dr. Cornell called at the Waite apartment to pay his respects. Waite, with the Peck millions almost in his hands, forgot his suavity for a moment and greeted his father-in-law’s cousin so rudely that Dr. Cornell was hurt. At home that night the doctor expressed his amazement at the demeanor of the erstwhile gracious Waite.

This set the seal on the suspicions which Miss Hardwick had always harbored. Saying nothing to any one she hurried to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to Percy Peck, the murdered man’s son, in Grand Rapids.

“This case,” said Commissioner Faurot, “was interesting because a woman’s intuition seized upon a moment’s carelessness on the part of one of the most fiendish murderers in police records to undo the criminal. Without her, the authorities never would have investigated the case. Waite certainly would have murdered his wife and perhaps others before he got through.”

Long forgotten now, Waite — who had smooth-talked his way into New York society seemingly with designs of cutting a swath of bodies through it* — made quite the infamous figure in his day. This Times article (pdf again) from days after his arrest suggests a whiff of the case’s sensation to contemporaries.

* The authorities, who naturally had no incentive to downplay the menace of their killer, figured his wife, his mistress and his mistress’ husband were next in line — though there was also no obvious way Waite could have cashed in on the latter two.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,USA


1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities

11 comments May 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1498, the Dominican friar who had once bent Florence to his austere will was hung in chains and burned.

Girolamo Savonarola preached standing-room-only, millenial sermons against worldly immorality, in the early 1490’s. By 1494, when peninsular politics chased a weak Medici scion from Florence, he had become its master.

He makes a complex character, with a streak of flawed greatness even his contemporary enemies recognized; his anti-Renaissance theology was severe but not dour, fired as it was by a genuine spiritual passion that spoke to real needs of his audience and a real crisis growing in the Church. And he did not disdain the revolutionary real-world implications of his faith.

Savonarola instituted Republican government with a touch of the Taliban — a vice squad of young hooligans to rough up rouged ladies and card-players;* a famous Bonfire of the Vanities in which Botticelli incinerated some of his own work — but also a populist economic touch.

For reasons both internal (the killjoy factor of busting up dice games wore out its welcome) and external (his French ally Charles VIII was driven from Italy, and Savonarola made a dire enemy of the corrupt Borgia pontiff Alexander VI), the priest’s grip on Florence weakened. In April 1498, he was arrested with two other clerics; all three were tortured into signing confessions, then hanged in the Piazza della Signoria by an insolent executioner.

The doomed Savonarola anguished that he had not been strong enough to resist the tortures of the rack, and penned in contrition the Latin meditation Infelix ego:

Alas wretch that I am, destitute of all help, who have offended heaven and earth — where shall I go? Whither shall I turn myself? To whom shall I fly? Who will take pity on me? To heaven I dare not lift up my eyes, for I have deeply sinned against it; on earth I find no refuge, for I have been an offence to it…

Like Savonarola’s memory and teachings, it spread — often illicitly — in a Europe ready for religious reform. Infelix ego has been frequently set to devotional music, like this version by Orlande de Lassus:


Savonarola might have been in himself a dead end, an unsuccessful prophet quickly rolled back, but he nonetheless possesses a recognizable essence that distills both the Zeitgeist of his time and the immemorial hunger for simplicity and virtue that coexists with the equally human celebration of pleasure and beauty. He left complex legacies to both the Church and the city his reforms sought (and ultimately failed) to scourge.

In religion, his castigation of the vice and sin of the Church (a position of which he was an outstanding but hardly a lonely advocate) prefigured the coming Reformation. But Savonarola also never left off the most devout affiliation to Catholicism, nor sought institutional schism even when he had been excommunicated.** What to make of such a man? He is both depicted (at the base of a Martin Luther statue) at the Worms Reformation Monument, and proposed for present-day Catholic canonization.

So too his secular legacy — the theocrat who burned books and expelled the Medici and was reduced to ashes for his reactionary principles — merits a respectful recollection in Florence, even if few would actually want to live in his republic. He repelled Machiavelli, a libertine counselor of the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic, but perhaps fascinated him as well, as a prince with a precisely backward grasp of his own power.

This stone marking the site of the execution stands at a crossroads of tourist traffic in a thicket of statuary, mostly nude and/or classically inspired, outside the entrance to one of Europe’s principle collections of Renaissance art.

One wonders what the old Dominican would have made of it.

Books about Savonarola’s Florence

* Savonarola also made sodomy punishable by death.

** Alexander VI tried first to get him (in Lyndon Johnson’s fragrant phrase) inside the tent pissing out by making him a cardinal, which Savonarola spurned.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Florence,God,Hanged,Heads of State,Heresy,History,Infamous,Italy,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Torture

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1833: Midgegooroo, Noongar rebel

1 comment May 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1833, an aged aboriginal Noongar (or Nyungar) was sentenced to execution and summarily shot in southwest Australia.

Midgegooroo was one of the many indigenous casualties of European settlement — Perth, in this case.

Little is documented of his life but the end and that, of course, by his enemies; he helped raise resistance to the arriving whites in 1831 after a native was killed trying to raid a potato patch. As tensions heightened over the ensuing months, he was outlawed with a £20 reward on his head. He was sentenced — possibly without any sort of formal trial — and summarily shot a few days after capture.

Midgegooroo’s son Yagan outlived his father two more months, and in that scanty condescension of destiny carved a place as one of Australia’s most illustrious native rebels. (pdf)

In the end, inevitably, Yagan’s fate was the same — not so precisely as to qualify him directly for these pages but ambush by settlers amounted to much the same as the rickety assemblage of formal semi-legalisms that thrust his father into the ground: the law of conquest without apology. It would be years yet before any white would face the law’s lethal sanction for killing Australian natives.

Yagan’s head was hewn off and packed for England as a grisly trophy-cum-souvenir-cum-“anthropological curiosity”. Not until the recent trend towards repatriating such remains was it was finally exhumed and returned to the Noongar nation — in 1997.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions

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