Archive for March, 2009

2001: Mariette Bosch, love triangulator

1 comment March 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2001, Botswana secretly hanged creepy South African emigre Mariette Bosch for whacking her neighbor in order to steal the neighbor’s husband.

That the black widow was actually white only threw the lurid scenario into sharper relief. In the well-heeled enclaves of Gaborone, one Ria Wolmarans was found shot dead in 1996, and inside a month her former husband Tienie Wolmarans had moved in with Mariette Bosch.

The big break in the case came from Mariette’s sister Judith, to whom the murderess had unguardedly confided her love for Tienie prior to the shooting. (The lovebirds’ official story was that their loins only heated up as Ria Wolmarans’ body cooled.) Judith got ahold of the 9mm Mariette had borrowed and handed over to the police what proved to be the murder weapon.

Although the courts found Mariette’s erratic defense — something about hypnotism and her victim’s boss — absurdly implausible, her elite status helped make her the lightning rod for capital punishment in Botswana.

The international attention she attracted, however, simultaneously pressured the government to close the books with a very speedy hanging.

Bosch was hanged at 6 a.m. this date upon 24 hours’ notice to herself and none whatsoever to the outside world: Tienie — who always avowed disbelief that Bosch killed his wife — was turned away from the prison on what he figured was a routine visit the previous day, and found out about Bosch’s execution with the rest of the country when it hit the news two days later. Bosch had to go her last day on earth alone.

Although it remains an emblematic case, Bosch’s disposal hasn’t exactly changed Botswana’s hanging protocol: brief appeals process, executions in secrecy, scant prospect of clemency. The country’s politicians make no apologies about it, notwithstanding the high-profile work of its domestic human rights organization Ditshwanelo. (Here’s its statement on Bosch.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botswana,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex,Women

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1952: Nikos Beloyannis, the man with the carnation

Add comment March 30th, 2009 Headsman

Before dawn on this date in 1952, four Greek Communists were shot outside Athens for treason.

Nikos (Nicholas) Beloyannis (or Mpeloyannis), the most prominent among them, spent a goodly portion of his adult life in prison for his subversive opinions — first at the hands of the interwar Greek nationalist government, then the Nazi occupation, then the British.

His many years’ service to communism was, unbeknownst to him, even then being horse-traded away as Stalin and Churchill carved up post-World War II spheres of influence.

Uncle Joe ceded Greece to the West — so the reds were left dangling during the Greek Civil War, and guys like Nikos got fitted for left martyrology.


The Execution of Beloyannis, by Peter de Francia.

“The man with the carnation” — it was his signature prop at the mass show trial where he drew a death sentence for “conspiring to overthrow by force the present regime in Greece.”

The trial, and the outcry that greeted its swift resolution, helped establish an enduring international reputation among fellow-travelers.

(From The Man With The Carnation, released after the fall of the Papadapoulos dictatorship.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Shot,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1796: Francois de Charette, Vendee rebel

3 comments March 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1796, Republican France subdued the troublesome Vendee with the execution of its last great rebel.

Royalist officer Charette (English Wikipedia link | French) had assumed leadership of the anti-Republican revolt that broke out in the Vendee in 1796 — albeit with some turf rivalry with other anti-Republican figures in the area.

After a capable stretch of guerrilla campaigning, Charette had no sooner laid down his arms than the desperately counterrevolutionary English pushed for an ill-considered resumption of hostilities.

This time, the rebels took it in the culottes.

Charette, having upheld the monarchist cause long past his fellows — and much past any hope of success — became the figure the Republic had to eliminate to pacify the region. As English historian Archibald Alison has it, Charette paid a grim price for refusing to just be bought off.

Anxious to get quit of so formidable an enemy on any terms, the Directory offered [Charette] a safe retreat into England with his family and such of his followers as he might select, and a million of francs for his own maintenance. Charette replied, “I am ready to die with arms in my hands; but not to fly, and abandon my companions in misfortune. All the vessels of the Republic would not be sufficient to transport my brave soldiers into England. Far from fearing your menaces, I will myself come to seek you in your own camp.” …

This indomitable chief, however, could not long withstand the immense bodies which were now directed against him. His band was gradually reduced from seven hundred to fifty, and at last, ten followers. With this handful of heroes he long kept at bay the Republican forces; but at length, pursued on every side, and tracked out like a wild beast by bloodhounds, he was seized after a furious combat, and brought, bleeding and mutilated, but unsubdued, to the Republican headquarters. … Maltreated by the brutal soldiery, dragged along, yet dripping with blood from his wounds, before the populace of the town, weakened by loss of blood, he had need of all his strength of mind to sustain his courage; but, even in this extremity, his firmness never deserted him.

He was shot in Nantes after a perfunctory trial, refusing a blindfold and giving the orders to his own firing squad.


The execution of Charette. Mid-19th century illustration.


Execution of General Charette, in Nantes, March 1796, by Julien Le Blant.

Napoleon, who had done well to duck a possibly career-killing assignment to the Vendee the year before and was in consequence at this very moment the Revolution’s emergent man on horseback,* paid tribute from his suitable distance to Charette’s brilliance.

Charette was a great character; the true hero of that interesting period of our Revolution, which, if it presents great misfortunes, has at least not injured our glory. He left on me the impression of real grandeur of mind; the traces of no common energy and audacity, the sparks of genius, are apparent in his actions.

* Having made his name by efficiently putting down a royalist putsch in Paris a few months before, Napoleon had wed Josephine just three weeks before Charette’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1997: First use of lethal injection in China

1 comment March 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Kunming City Intermediate People’s Court debuted a brand-new execution technology for the world’s capital of capital punishment.

With a 1996 Criminal Procedural Law reform making lethal injection an option for processing the enormous ranks of China’s condemned, experimentation got underway this date on two convicts whose identities and crimes I have not seen indicated. These were not only the first lethal injections in China, but the first anywhere outside the U.S.

According to the New York Times, China began its foray without the usual accoutrement of medicalization: rather than the familiar strap-down gurney, Kunming officials simply brought the doomed prisoners to the same execution ground used for shootings and had them roll up their sleeves for the needle.

Whatever its initial inelegance, China has enjoyed many thousands of test cases since to refine the practice — as many as 15,000 per year at this time, Amnesty International has charged.*

In the 12 years since, and aided by the offices of its guinea pigs, lethal injection has gained significantly in both technical sophistication and official acceptance; it is now thought that most Chinese executions use this method, rather than the old gunshot-to-the-back-of-the-head.

To What End?

More humane? Maybe.

Easier on an executioner than discharging a bullet at point-blank range? You’d have to think so.

Cheaper? Well, maybe — if the cost of the mobile killing van is spread over enough, er, “subjects”.

But lethal injection enjoys one significant benefit of distastefully obvious utility to the state:** it facilitates tissue transplant from a recently executed prisoner.

Though Chinese officials have always stonewalled on the subject, lucrative organ harvesting from executed prisoners has long been endemic in the country.

* China’s death penalty system has been famously opaque, so this figure is far in excess of the known thousand-plus judicial executions every year (1,718 in 2008) and would include several times that number in other judicial executions not publicly reported, plus extrajudicial killings that presumably wouldn’t involve lethal injection. Even with only the official executions specifically known to the wider world, China easily accounts for the majority of the world’s executions year after year.

** The older (and still-used) method of shooting a prisoner in the head also preserves organs, of course.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Known But To God,Lethal Injection,Milestones

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1836: Goliad Massacre

3 comments March 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1836 — Palm Sunday, as it happened — over 300 Anglo POWs fighting to separate Texas from Mexico were executed en masse outside Goliad’s fortress

Less widely celebrated than the Battle of the Alamo preceding it by a fortnight, the Battle of Coleto on March 19-20 had seen Mexican troops surround and capture another force of Texians at Goliad.

Unaware of a Mexican order issued the previous December to execute foreign prisoners,* the men under Col. J.W. Fannin — a dithering commander whose military competence didn’t quite equal his romantic aspirations — expected to be released in a matter of weeks. They were marched out this morning on some innocuous pretext and had bare moments to apprehend their impending fate before their guards mowed them down. (Fannin was individually shot apart from his troops.)

Nineteenth-century musketry was a mediocre tool for mass slaughter, especially when the targets were nearly as many as their executioners. A number of prisoners survived the volley and managed to escape the subsequent cavalry charge and bayoneting by leaping into a nearby river. A fortunate few others were intentionally preserved. This thorough site on the massacre** preserves several survivor accounts.

These memoirs also detail life in the unit and troop maneuvers that are certainly of interest; in these pages, of course, we are most drawn to the accounts of those who stared death in the face — like this (understandably melodramatic) description by Herman Ehrenberg:

Either life or death! Behind were the bayonets of the murderers, and before me was the sword of a coward that crossed my way to the saving stream. Determinedly I rushed upon him. Forward I must go, and — the coward took flight in characteristic Mexican gallantry. Now the path was open, near was the point of my escape.

Arriving at the other bank of the river, I looked around once more to where my comrades were dying, while the bullets of the still firing enemies whistled about me. The hellish exaltations of the enemy mixed with the cries of pain of my dying brothers sounded over to me. What feelings took possession of me here! I cast another look and a farewell greeting to my dead companions and turned to flee. I had to hasten if I did not wish to fall into the hands of the lancers who were now on this side of the river less than a half a mile below me.

Which makes an interesting stylistic contrast with the story of John C. Duval, similar in its events but strikingly low-key, even ironic:

Some one near me exclaimed “Boys! they are going to shoot us!” and at the same instant I heard the clicking of a musket locks all along the Mexican line. I turned to look, and as I did so, the Mexicans fired upon us, killing probably one hundred out of the one hundred and fifty men in the division. We were in the double file and I was in the rear rank. The man in front of me was shot dead, and in falling he knocked me down. I didn’t get up for a minute, and when I rose to my feet, I found that the whole Mexican line had charged over me, and were in hot pursuit of those who had not been shot and who were fleeing towards the river about five hundred yards distant. I followed on after them, for I knew that escape in any direction (all open prairie) would be impossible, and I had nearly reached the river before it became necessary to make my way through the Mexican line ahead. As I did so, one of the soldiers charged upon me with his bayonet (his gun I suppose being empty). As he drew his musket back to make a lunge at me, one of our men coming from another direction, ran between us, and the bayonet was driven through his body. The blow was given with such force, that in falling, the man probably wrenched or twisted the bayonet in such a way as to prevent the Mexican from withdrawing it immediately. I saw him put his foot upon the man, and make an ineffectual attempt to extricate the bayonet from his body, but one look satisfied me, as I was somewhat in a hurry just then, and I hastened to the bank of the river and plunged in. The river at that point was deep and swift, but not wide, and being a good swimmer, I soon gained the opposite bank, untouched by any of the bullets that were pattering in the water around my head.


The Texas state flower — the bluebonnet — blooms in front of the monument put up to the Goliad Massacre on its centennial. Creative Commons image from Matthew Lee High.

History buffs in the Goliad environs this weekend can catch the annual re-enactment of the Goliad Massacre this weekend at Presidio La Bahia.

* The order came from the top, but the general who captured Goliad had no stomach to carry it out. He asked for leniency … but received an emphatic confirmation of the execution order.

** Also see its unit rosters tracking the particular fates of most of Fannin’s men, and these biographies of the unit.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Texas,Wartime Executions

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1697: Godfrey McCulloch, on the maiden

Add comment March 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Godfrey McCulloch was beheaded for murder.

A lesser Scotch noble, McCulloch was heir to a family that had seen better times. His forebears had built and laid their [attached] heads at cozy Cardoness Castle, but hard times had seen the Gordon clan foreclose a bum McCulloch mortgage, and that put the families at pistols drawn.*

A minor confrontation between Godfrey McCulloch and Sir William Gordon saw McCulloch plant in Gordon’s leg a bullet wound that festered into a fatal infection.

McCulloch fled to the continent, but eventually — there’s no place like home — returned, and was recognized in Edinburgh.

One boring scaffold speech later, and that was that … unless you credit the legend that his headless body sprang up and ran 100 yards.

McCulloch was beheaded on the Maiden, a guillotine precursor that automated the chopping process.

He seems to have the distinction of being the last person so executed. (Update: Perhaps not.)

* McCulloch, who was also a member of the Scottish Parliament, held a sheriff’s commission in Wigton. Although anti-Covenanter, he washed his hands of the Wigtown martyrs case.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Maiden,Milestones,Murder,Nobility,Politicians,Public Executions,Scotland

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1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe

4 comments March 25th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

The electric chair has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 1997 Florida execution of Cuban refugee Pedro Medina.

The improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge caused a “crown of foot-high flames” to shoot from Medina’s head, in a botched execution that caused Florida to reexamine its use of the electric chair and accelerated the trend towards lethal injection as the preferred method of execution — modern, sanitary and humane. But electrocution was once preferred for just those very reasons — well, that, and politics.

The thought of designing an apparatus to stimulate death by electrocution first came to dentist Dr. Albert Southwick in 1881, who watched an drunk man touch the terminal of an electricity generator in Buffalo, New York. Impressed at how quickly and painlessly the man died, he mentioned the incident to his friend, a state senator, who promptly brought the matter to the attention of the governor. The state legislature was then asked to consider how modern day electricity might emerge as an alternative to the often grisly process of hanging, in which incompetent executioners often inadvertently subjected prisoners to slow deaths by strangulation or decapitation.

Several years later, an inventor by the name of Harold Brown, an employee of the famous Thomas Edison, designed the first electric chair, deliberately adopting the Alternating Current (AC) form of electricity because Edison did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, but the novel method was far from foolproof: it took two attempts, and the inmate was reported to have gone down in the same sort of smoke, flames, and smell of Medina’s over a hundred years later.

Still, the method caught on, and over the course of the 20th century, the electric chair became an indelible symbol of the death penalty in the nation’s consciousness.

“The chair” didn’t begin to decline until the mid-1980s, when newspaper accounts about botched executions, together with the emerging technology of lethal injection, again prompted some states to reexamine their death penalty statues.

It was around this time that Pedro Medina first came to the US from Cuba, part of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, in which Fidel Castro “permitted” some 125,000 Cuban prisoners and mentally ill to depart from the Mariel harbor for the fertile shores of America. (Medina himself had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Cuba and diagnosed with illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and major depressive disorder with psychosis.) The boatlift polarized public sentiment in the United States.

These factors combined to lend Medina, a black man, a low status indeed in the eyes of prosecutors and jurors when, two years after his arrival on American shores, he was convicted of murdering his neighbor, Dorothy James.

Medina was executed in Albert Southwick’s brainchild 15 years later, despite pleas from James’ daughter, Lindi James, who said that she did not believe Medina had killed her mother and that her mother would not have wanted him executed regardless, and from Pope John Paul II, who also made a public call for mercy on Medina’s behalf. Medina’s lawyers also filed a petition claiming he was insane and thus incompetent to be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that, while he had mental problems, he could still be executed.

Early in the morning on March 25, 1997, Medina went out in flames.

A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. (From the Death Penalty Information Center’s botched executions page.)

The source of the malfunction was not immediately apparent; prison officials claimed the fire had been caused by a corroded copper screen in the electric chair’s headpiece, but later investigation revealed that it was due to improper application of an electricity-conducting sponge to Medina’s head. Attorney General Bob Butterworth hailed the deterrent value of malfunctions: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.”

Others, including the warden conducting the execution, were not as sanguine.

The debacle of Medina’s execution caused a media sensation and led to a case by another Florida death row inmate, Thomas Provenzano, claiming that lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

Provenzano lost his case, but with the release of bloody photographs of the 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis, more states began moving against the use of the electric chair. Of the six states that today retain it (Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and, yes, Florida), none currently use it as their only method of execution.

Rather, lethal injection has become the norm.

But for how long? There may be no AC/DC marketing gambit in the new, modern business of death, and no crown of flames. But maybe all we’ve really done by moving to the needle is render invisible ongoing Medina-like botches.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1945: Max Schlichting, for realism

4 comments March 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, a Hamburg coal worker was executed for an excessively realistic take on the war effort.

Although — or because — Germany’s administrative infrastructure was falling apart under the Allied onslaught late in World War II, its judiciary had no compunction about doling out death sentences.

While the overall number of cases dealt with by most special courts was much lower than in previous years, due to the gradual collapse of the court system, in these last months of the war some judges passed proportionally more death sentences than ever before. Legal officials continued to justify their brutal sentencing by claiming that this would prevent another ‘stab in the back’.

In other words: Clap louder!

Poor Max Schlichting, a coal worker with an unfortunate communist past, was sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung — “subversion” or “undermining the war effort,” the same thing they got Remarque’s sister on.

Specifically: he remarked to a soldier, in the aftermath of the American landing at Normandy, that Germany was going to lose the war. An undercover Gestapo spy overheard him.

Although hard evidence of Germany’s situation (German link) would have been difficult for a Hamburger to overlook, Schlichting received no clemency and was executed — six weeks before Hamburg surrendered to the Allies.

His sentence and (banal) last letter are recounted here, in German.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1877: John D. Lee, for the Mountain Meadows Massacre

1 comment March 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1877, Mormon leader John D. Lee was shot at the site of (and for the crime of instigating) the Mountain Meadows Massacre 20 years before.

As the only person ever prosecuted for this dreadful affair, which saw 120 California-bound settlers slaughtered by a Mormon militia, Lee “was allowed … to carry to his grave Mormondom’s guilt for this horrible and barbaric act.” (Jan Shipps)

On this anniversary of Lee’s death, Executed Today interviews author Judith Freeman, whose historical novel Red Water tells Lee’s story through the eyes of three of his 19 wives.

You grew up Mormon — what brought you to this story? I gather that it wasn’t exactly daily discourse in your youth.

I found a copy of Juanita Brooks‘ book The Mountain Meadows Massacre in a used bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington, read it and was captivated by this story.

Growing up in northern Utah, I’d only heard vague, shadowy references to the massacre. It was the dirty little secret buried in the Mormon past — except for those people in Southern Utah who lived with that story as part of every generation’s experience and shame. I felt I had to write a novel about it, in part to try and understand this question: How do you get basically good people, like those Mormon settlers, to commit such evil?

You paint a picture of John Lee through the eyes of three of his wives. What kind of man was he — and how representative of the Mormon hierarchy would that be?

I think Lee was first and foremost a brilliant pioneer and survivalist and also a big blowhard, the kind of guy who would talk your head off — affable and a bit boring when it came to promoting his own virtues and experiences. He was self-aggrandizing, he’d do anything to make a buck, he had problems with the truth. He was a suck-up to Brigham Young who became his substitute father and then betrayed him.

He wasn’t entirely trustworthy because he put his own interests before all else. He could also be incredibly generous and kind, helpful to others. He wanted people to like him though they often didn’t, and he had an ingratiating quality. He was an orphan, with an orphan’s life-long neediness. In many ways I think he was good to his wives and cared deeply about his family — all sixty something kids and 19 wives. He was an amazingly talented man, skilled at many trades and businesses.

Was he representative of the Mormon Hierarchy? I don’t know. In some ways yes but I sense he was more sycophantic than some, and had a more amusing character than others, but what they all had in common was an absolute deference to church authority. I think I might have enjoyed meeting John D. Lee, he might have been more lively and fun than Brigham Young who strikes me as a misogynist and a brittle, cold man.

What about the women — three very different characters. What’s the sense you got of life for these women as pioneers, living in a polygamous family? How did they relate to one another, and how did the massacre and the execution of John Lee change their situation?

The women were also amazingly inventive as pioneers, strong, tough, formidable women though how can you generalize about 19 different personalities? Some liked each other and some couldn’t stand each other and the good thing was that Lee was a small industry and many of his wives had their own farms so they weren’t required to live on top of each other. He understood the “kitchen thing” when it comes to women, and said he wanted every one of his wives to have her own stove. The Lee family/families were devastated by his execution. His families were left penniless and destroyed, treated very cruelly, the women dispersed and shunned, the children shamed, and this shame was carried for generations.

To what extent is polygamy in the back story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What, for that matter, was the massacre really “about” in your judgment?

Polygamy had a small role to play in the massacre. The practice of polygamy, outlawed by the United States, was a part of what disturbed Washington and caused the federal government to send troops to Utah, which scared the Mormon populace into committing violent acts. One must remember that they had been the victims of violence and massacre, and fear turned in their minds.

What the massacre was really about, in my judgment, was the struggle for power in Utah. Would Brigham Young and the Mormon hierarchy control the territory and be masters of their own destiny, or would the federal government impose control of the “fiefdom”? The massacre came out of the idea the Indians could be made to carry out an attack and then the government would be forced to realize that if the Mormons were not allowed to control the territory and “their” natives, terrible things could happen. But the whole thing got out of control and took on a terrible life of its own.

A large party of Mormons, painted and tricked out as Indians, overtook the train of emigrant wagons some three hundred miles south of Salt Lake City, and made an attack. But the emigrants threw up earthworks, made fortresses of their wagons and defended themselves gallantly and successfully for five days! Your Missouri or Arkansas gentleman is not much afraid of the sort of scurvy apologies for “Indians” which the southern part of Utah affords. He would stand up and fight five hundred of them.

At the end of the five days the Mormons tried military strategy. They retired to the upper end of the “Meadows,” resumed civilized apparel, washed off their paint, and then, heavily armed, drove down in wagons to the beleaguered emigrants, bearing a flag of truce! When the emigrants saw white men coming they threw down their guns and welcomed them with cheer after cheer! And, all unconscious of the poetry of it, no doubt, they lifted a little child aloft, dressed in white, in answer to the flag of truce!

The leaders of the timely white “deliverers” were President Haight and Bishop John D. Lee, of the Mormon Church. Mr. Cradlebaugh, who served a term as a Federal Judge in Utah and afterward was sent to Congress from Nevada, tells in a speech delivered in Congress how these leaders next proceeded:

They professed to be on good terms with the Indians, and represented them as being very mad. They also proposed to intercede and settle the matter with the Indians. After several hours parley they, having (apparently) visited the Indians, gave the ultimatum of the savages; which was, that the emigrants should march out of their camp, leaving everything behind them, even their guns. It was promised by the Mormon bishops that they would bring a force and guard the emigrants back to the settlements. The terms were agreed to, the emigrants being desirous of saving the lives of their families. The Mormons retired, and subsequently appeared with thirty or forty armed men. The emigrants were marched out, the women and children in front and the men behind, the Mormon guard being in the rear. When they had marched in this way about a mile, at a given signal the slaughter commenced. The men were almost all shot down at the first fire from the guard. Two only escaped, who fled to the desert, and were followed one hundred and fifty miles before they were overtaken and slaughtered. The women and children ran on, two or three hundred yards further, when they were overtaken and with the aid of the Indians they were slaughtered. Seventeen individuals only, of all the emigrant party, were spared, and they were little children, the eldest of them being only seven years old. Thus, on the 10th day of September, 1857, was consummated one of the most cruel, cowardly and bloody murders known in our history.

-Mark Twain, Roughing It

John Lee: murderer, scapegoat, or both? How did he come to be prosecuted at all, and how to be the only one prosecuted?

John D. Lee was both murderer and scapegoat. He was bold and careless enough to hang around the area after the massacre, and to prosper from his various businesses and appear almost indifferent to what had happened — perhaps he thought he had the protection of the church authorities who continued to insist the Indians had committed this atrocity. A lot of others who’d participated in the massacre left the area, driven out by fear and shame. But Lee hung on.

John D. Lee, seated beside his coffin just before his execution.

How he was thrown to the wolves by the church authorities is a long story, as is the story of his two trials. He was the easiest person to scapegoat. He took the bullet for his church, and I think the authorities felt that they could put the affair behind them once he was dead, and they did for a very long time, until brave little Juanita Brooks wrote her book in the 1950s and was the first to tell the truth: the Mormons did it.

Does the Mormon church have some unfinished reckoning here? If so — why, after all these years?

Who cares what I think? But in my opinion, of course they do. They need to stop saying it was a “local” affair, carried out by some “local” renegade fanatics in southern Utah. The whole situation that led to the massacre was put into motion by people high up in the church, but I doubt very much they’ll ever go there and admit that. Too many lawyers, too much money, too impossible to admit culpability of prophets, seers, revelators.

Finally, I just want to say that after writing Red Water and thinking about this massacre for the five years it took to research and write the book, this is what I came to believe about how you get good people to do bad things.

You need to get three things going: First, you have to make people afraid and use that fear to manipulate them (think of 9/11). Second, you need get people to obey some greater force or consciousness other than their own — the Mormons had a principle of Perfect Obedience where you were required to subject yourself to the authority of the priesthood and church elders, but this idea could as well be inculcated in the concept of patriotism, or military duty. The point is, you subdue your own conscience in favor of deferment to an outside force. Third, you make people think their system is better than the other guy’s, that you’re doing God’s will, that your sense of right is greater than theirs. If you can make people think they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything. Get these three things going, and you can get good people to commit great evil.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Infamous,Interviews,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Scandal,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,USA,Utah

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1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey

21 comments March 22nd, 2009 Thomas Levenson

(Thanks to Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog. Prof. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and author of the forthcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter.)

Early in the morning of March 22, 1699, William Chaloner raged.

Chaloner, a convicted coiner, refused the Newgate Jail Chaplain’s plea to show proper penitence, shouting with “more Passion than Piety,” of his wronged state and unmerited destination (according to his anonymous biographer in the one surviving account of his life). In time, he calmed sufficiently to accept the sacrament, and so proceeded to the execution convoy to be borne from Newgate to the hanging tree at Tyburn (now Marble Arch, just to the west of the old City of London).

There Chaloner’s fury mounted again, and he shouted to the crowd, drawn as always to the spectacle of public hanging days, that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law.” He mounted the ladder to the top of Tyburn’s gibbet. He prayed, and then pulled the hood over his eyes without aid. When the moment came, the executioner’s men pulled the ladder out of the way and Chaloner dangled, twitching and jumping (the “hangman’s dance”) as long as it took –- minutes, at least — for life to choke out of him. Richer men often paid the hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.

The investigator who had sent Chaloner to the noose was not present; or at least nowhere in his copious notes and letters did he admit to curiosity about the fate of a man whose pursuit occupied him for almost three years. The Warden of His Majesty’s Mint had more pressing duties to perform, and so Isaac Newton allowed the date of Chaloner’s death to pass unmarked.

Isaac Newton? That Newton?


Appropriately, Newton himself wound up on the currency.

The accidents of place and time that brought the man who was recognized in his own day as the greatest mind of the age into conflict with Chaloner, an uncommonly gifted common criminal have fascinated me since I first learned of them through reading Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to the implacable Newton, written days before the hanging. In it Chaloner begged, writing “O dear S[i]r nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me.”

What I wanted to answer was the obvious question: how and why did Isaac Newton come to pass judgment on the life of any other man? I had always thought of him as the nearly cloistered scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, his home for more than thirty years. It was there he performed the experiments and the calculations that led him, in 1687, to write his masterwork, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy — better known simply as the Principia -– as well as pursuing his decades-long program of alchemical research.

So how, I wondered, did he end up in London, wallowing in the muck with the capital’s criminal underground?

Not to put too fine a point on it, finding out has turned into a book Newton and the Counterfeiter, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and scheduled for release on June 4. But, to anticipate that longer story, here is the gist: Newton, after Principia found himself an international celebrity, and, as one of Cambridge University’s representatives to the Convention Parliament of 1689 that legitimized William of Orange‘s seizure of the English throne from the deposed Stuart King James II, he had nearly a year to enjoy the acclaim of London and Europe’s thinking and political elites before returning to the quiet of Cambridge, then a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants. It was an intellectual backwater too, especially compared to the big city in which he encountered figures like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke (whom he despised), Samuel Pepys (whom he did not) and so on. So he started, with Locke’s help, to seek a patronage appointment that would allow him to live comfortably in London. It took six years to find the right one, but ultimately he was offered the Warden’s post at the Mint. That job was supposed to be a sinecure, a nearly no-show position that would pay him a very comfortable wage.

And so it would have turned out were it not for the terribly debased state of England’s silver coinage, which had deteriorated to about half its legal weight for a whole host of reasons. So Newton arrived at a time when (a) the Mint was attempting to recall and recoin the entire stock of silver money for the entire country –- all the smaller units of money essential to everyday transactions –- and (b) coining, counterfeiting, was flourishing as enterprising men and women set out to get rich by filling in the gaps in the money supply with coins that never felt the stamp of an official Mint die. As Warden, it became Newton’s duty to see that legal money was produced fast and fairly, and to pursue all those who set up on their own.

Of those who did none were more technically skilled or ambitious than William Chaloner. His is a fascinating story, told at much greater length in my book, in which you see the currents of rapid economic change, class and ambition all converge within this one, barely remembered life. He was born desperate poor, a weaver’s son in Lincolnshire. He ran from his first apprenticeship to London, where he started out at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking porn on street corners. He rose rapidly, first with his clearly impressive gift of gab, and then, after falling in with someone who knew how to gild surfaces, as the central figure in a series of ever grander schemes to counterfeit gold and silver money. He had sidelines as an informer, betraying conspiracies that he would himself set up, but his central gift and fascination was in the creation of fakes. Ultimately, he was one of the first to recognize the power of paper, and he started to counterfeit a variety of the early experiments with paper money and bank instruments.

In this sense Chaloner’s career –- and Newton’s urgent pursuit of him –- offer a window into the birth of the modern idea of money, of finance. And one of the things that fascinated me about this case is the degree to which this old story tracks some of our immediate problems. England’s and Europe’s economies were in rapid revolution in the late seventeenth century. The old idea of money as a chunk of metal with a pretty picture on it could no longer come close to accommodating the kind of enterprises governments and individuals wanted to undertake, from war to the funding of global webs of trade. And so people came up with all kinds of different ways of trying to represent value and exchange and even the idea of the changing worth of an investment over time. And the people making these experiments did not fully understand the implications of each expedient they tried. The last piece of paper Chaloner counterfeited was called a Malt Lottery Ticket, and it was at once simply paper money, a bond, and a gamble. Traders attempted to value these kinds of things in embryonic financial markets -– which would in a couple of decades blow up in a financial collapse that possess some striking similarities to our current predicament. Newton himself would lose a considerable fortune in that collapse, a sum worth a couple of million pounds, maybe more, in 21st century money.

It was that sense of precariousness that made the pursuit of counterfeiters so urgent in the midst of the late 17th century; England’s money supply was genuinely at risk, and no one had a good grasp of what it would take to make both the daily experience of small transactions and the high finance of war and trade go smoothly. So anyone threatening either or both levels of money was public enemy number one.

Of those who tried their hand at currency crime, Chaloner was the most accomplished, and notorious. By his own admission he counterfeited on the order of 30,000 pounds worth of currency over a seven- or eight-year career, an enormous fortune for the day. His big mistake, though, was to challenge Newton directly, accusing him in public of incompetence or fraud in his management of the recoinage of silver money between 1696 and 1698. He laid that charge both in testimony to Parliament and in a pamphlet he had printed for public distribution, and the scandal could genuinely have wounded Newton, were it not for the influence of his friends in power in Parliament at the moment.

It was enough, certainly, to propel Newton into an extraordinary investigation, an exercise of what may be seen as true non-fiction scientific detection. He set up a net of agents and informers throughout the worst neighborhoods and pubs in London, tracking any instance of coining he could find, interrogating suspects at the Tower or in jail, trying to build a web of connections around Chaloner. That story is contained within a collection of several hundred depositions and summaries of interrogations, all signed by Newton, that have survived, largely unexamined until now. Those records show that it took Newton almost two years in all, but aided in the end by listeners whose lives he held at his disposal inside Chaloner’s cell at Newgate, he managed to collect a sufficient weight of testimony to ensure that he could convict a prisoner clever enough to have escaped several previous attempts at prosecution.

The trial itself was something of a sham. Chaloner had feared being charged on the Malt Lottery Ticket forgery, (as we know from the accounts in Newton’s files of informers in the cells) but Newton actually presented evidence of a coining spree that almost certainly did not take place as described. Among other confounding facts, Chaloner was supposed to have made six different denominations of both silver and gold coins in a single day, which would have involved an enormous confusion of tools and materials that ran counter to basic counterfeiting practice.

No matter: the sheer volume of precise detail that Newton’s witnesses were able (or convinced) to provide produced a conviction within a very short time –- the whole trial took no more than an hour or so on March 3, 1699. There was a truncated appeal process -– really just a request for clemency from the crown, which was denied, and Chaloner’s sentence came down.

Formally, he had been found guilty of high treason, an assault upon the crown in the form of the king’s likeness and authority represented on the face of England’s coins. The punishment for high treason was essentially that suffered by William Wallace of Braveheart fame: to be strangled to the point of death, to be disemboweled whilst still living, to be beheaded and then quartered. By the date of Chaloner’s execution, the punishment had eased this far: convicted coiners were drawn to the place of execution on a rough sledge, subject to all the filth and abuse London’s open-sewered streets possessed; then hung until dead, and then, on rare occasions, to suffer post-mortem dismemberment. Chaloner himself was not, so far as any records revealed, actually cut into pieces. (As a gesture to public decency, women convicted of coining or other capital crimes were not supposed to be hung, lest their twitching at rope’s-end seem lewd. So they were burnt instead – though by the eighteenth century it was common to strangle them to death before lighting the pyre. Mercy, after the fashion of the times.)

Levenson lectures on his book at the MIT Writer’s Series.

One last note in a post gone much too long: Newton was involved in a number of counterfeiting investigations, and by some reckonings at least two dozen people went to their deaths as a result. Some historians, notably Frank Manuel, have speculated that Newton pursued this work with implausible eagerness, out of a kind of frustrated blood lust born of his abandoned and unhappy childhood.

This seems to me to be nonsense. The specific historical context matters here: Newton did not author the bloody code, nor did he send everyone he could to the gallows. Rather, the record of his depositions shows him to be simply a relentless practical man doing his job. He used little fish to catch big fish, and at least some of those low on the ladder received their escape from the gibbet. What you can see here, surprisingly, is the birth of a modern idea of a civil service. The Warden -– even Isaac Newton — was simply a man in a job doing the functions of that job, which included organizing the investigation and prosecution of counterfeiters.

What’s striking, of course, is that this civil servant, this bureaucrat, happened to possess the greatest scientific mind in history. And that’s the real sting in this tale. There is a connection between Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters and his attempts to understand nature. He did employ the same resources of concentration and logical organization in his criminal investigations that he did when he tackled any problem. But more than the commonality of work habits, there is, I think this link: Newton can be seen as many people: the mathematician, the theoretical physicist, the empirical experimentalist, the alchemical mystic, the heretically devout religious thinker –- and the government functionary too.

And yet he was, of course, a single man, one with many interests, but ultimately with a consistent ambition, to reduce to order the complexity of any problem which was posed to him. Newton did not expect as Warden to have to chase crooks; when he found out that was part of the job he wrote a rather whiny letter to the Treasury to see if he could wriggle out of the duty. When he found he could not, he responded as he always had to the job at hand.

As one consequence, on this day three hundred and ten years ago, William Chaloner died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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