Archive for November, 2010

1903: Tom Horn

3 comments November 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.

Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.

Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)

He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.

Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.

A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.

Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.

First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?

Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.

So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?

The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.

He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?

He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.

Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?

Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.

Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?

Yes.

How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?

He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)

I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.

Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.

* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”

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1945: Three German war criminals

Add comment November 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1945, three Germans were hanged by the American army at Landsberg for killing downed U.S. pilots during the late war.

Also available here.

Ernst Waldmann, a former Wehrmacht Unteroffizer, was one of the three; he shot an American pilot at Haimbuch in December 1944.

The other two were policemen Wilhelm Haffner and Albert Bury, who killed a downed pilot at Langen Sel Bold that same month — under, they protested, the coercion of the SS.

As the New York Times report noted, they died “within sight” of the cell in that same prison where Adolf Hitler (serving easy time for the Beer Hall Putsch) wrote Mein Kampf.


This was, coincidentally, also the same date that American president Harry S Truman first transmitted to Congress a national health insurance proposal. The doctors’ lobby howled it down as rank Bolshevism … leading to the bizarre ascendancy of the Rube Goldberg-esque employer-based insurance system that had sprouted during World War II as a consequence of wartime wage controls limiting employers’ ability to bid for workers’ service.

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2009: Danielle Simpson, “If I can’t be free – Kill me!!”

6 comments November 18th, 2010 Headsman

Last year on this date, Danielle Simpson was executed in Texas for murder.

Simpson, his wife, his brother, and another accomplice kidnapped an octogenarian church organist from her home, trussing her up and throwing her into the Nueces River to drown.

Though it would be another decade before his execution, the brutality of life on death row (and the usual appellate losing streak where the Fifth Circuit reigns) eventually ground him down into volunteering to expedite his execution.

I’m tired of being in an institution that’s unjust, degrading, and corrupted … I’m ready to die!! If I can’t be free – Kill Me!!

Simpson reversed himself shortly before the execution actually went down, but the further appeals on the matter of his “debilitating mental illness” and “diminished intellectual functioning” were equally unavailing.

It may not rise to a legal threshold, but the high school dropout’s thinking was clearly a bit scrambled. Death row has been known to have that effect.

One of Simpson’s attorneys at the Texas Defender Service, David R. Dow, recently wrote a well-received meditation on his life of representing defendants like Simpson who have virtually no prospect of success in the courts. The Autobiography of an Execution, blessedly un-tendentious despite the author’s unabashed death penalty opposition, makes a compelling stocking stuffer for the family member whose tastes run a bit grim.

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1998: Kenneth Allen McDuff, Texas nightmare

20 comments November 17th, 2010 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

Kenneth Allen McDuff grew from the small-time bully of tiny Rosebud, Texas, to a feared and reviled killer finally apprehended with the help of the America’s Most Wanted television series. By the time of his execution on November 17, 1998, he stood as a symbol of how the best-intentioned prison reforms could bring the most hideous results.*

In 1966, on parole for a string of burglaries, McDuff was first sentenced to death for the brutal murder of three teenagers he kidnapped and killed. The female member of the trio was sexually abused and raped for hours before McDuff used a broomstick to snap her neck “just like you’d kill a possum,” in the words of Falls County Sheriff Brady Pamplin, one of the first generation of Central Texas lawmen to deal with McDuff.

He remained on death row until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman vs. Georgia struck down all death penalty statutes in the United States. McDuff’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which left the possibility of parole.

A rape and attempted murder for which McDuff was never prosecuted resulted in a daughter who at the age of 21 visited McDuff in prison. Her visits ceased after McDuff described his fantasy of taking her to Las Vegas and pimping her out to earn himself a fortune.

A prisoner’s fifteen-page handwritten lawsuit, Ruiz vs. Estelle, exposed conditions in Texas prisons which proved unconstitutionally inhumane, including the use of inmates as guards. (McDuff ascended to the position of boss over fellow convicts following his exit from death row into the general prison population; his perks included a “gal-boy” who traded the usual personal services for McDuff’s protection from white supremacist former gang associates whom he had offended.) Ruling in the Ruiz case, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice placed the Texas prison system under the control of a Special Master and ordered that traditional prison overcrowding must cease.

The Texas parole board was ordered to release 150 prisoners a day, to reduce the prison population to the 50,000 for which there was adequate capacity. Despite a 1982 conviction for attempted bribery of a parole board member, McDuff made parole in early October of 1989. Waco’s U.S. Marshall Parnell McNamara could only ask, “Have they gone crazy?”

Author Gary Lavergne also maintains McDuff information on his website, including this collection of photos and this list of victims.

Kenneth Allen McDuff was a rarity on Texas’s death row: He was a son of the middle class among the poorest of the poor. On parole, his family furnished him with motor vehicles as needed, and a credit card so that he would not have to carry cash in his chancy, drug-ridden haunts along the Interstate 35 corridor of Central Texas.

Even a new arrest in July 1990, after he chased and threatened some black teenagers and then spewed racist invective at his parole revocation hearing, did not suffice to return him to prison. Six women, three of them drug-addicted prostitutes, have been verified as murder victims of Kenneth McDuff between his parole date in 1989 and his arrest as a fugitive in Kansas City on May 4, 1992; there may well be others whose identities will never be known.

McDuff was tried for the abductions and murders of Melissa Northrup, a convenience store clerk, and Colleen Reed, an accountant. He was convicted and sentenced to death in both cases.

Parole requirements for violent Texas criminals were stiffened substantially as a direct result of McDuff’s career, by the regulations of the parole board and by the Texas Legislature. (The statutes are known as the McDuff Laws.) McDuff by all accounts became the most hated man in the Texas prison system; once returned to death row, he was held in administrative segregation for his own protection from his latest arrival in 1993 until his execution.

Progressive Democrat Ann Richards was Governor of Texas at the time of McDuff’s last trial. A recovering alcoholic, she created an unprecedented emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment for Texas prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whose crimes involved substance abuse of one kind or another. No one appreciated the irony more than she: a governor dedicated to rehabilitation of prisoners was forced to kick off the biggest prison building spree in Texas history, to comply with the federal court’s orders on prison overcrowding while trying to ensure that Texas would never again see the likes of Kenneth Allen McDuff.

It took six years for law enforcement officers to persuade McDuff that his continued refusal to reveal where he had hidden the bodies of several of his victims offered him no sort of advantage. Some remains were located by means of hand-drawn maps, but maps did not suffice in every case. A few days before his execution, an unusual excursion party set out from the Ellis I prison outside Huntsville: a caravan of unmarked cars with dark-tinted glass carried McDuff, locked to a back seat and disguised with a baseball cap, on a “clandestine high security move.” Never allowed out of the car, McDuff directed investigators to the shallow grave of Colleen Reed, whom he kidnapped from an Austin car wash on December 29, 1991. Shortly thereafter, McDuff’s nephew received a reduction in his sentence for drug dealing.

McDuff never expressed remorse for any of his crimes. A lifetime of cheap beer and needle drug abuse was catching up to his liver when he climbed on the Walls Unit gurney on November 17, 1998. His last words: “I am ready to be released. Release me.”

* See Gary Cartwright’s “Free to Kill” Texas Monthly, Aug. 1992, Vol. 20, Issue 8, p. 90.

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1999: Zarmeena

4 comments November 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1999,* a burka-clad woman known only as Zarmeena (alternatively, Zarmina … or in some early reports, Zareena) was executed by gunshot in Kabul’s Ghazi Sports Stadium.

This first public execution of a woman under the Taliban — ordered because she had supposedly killed her husband** — was secretly filmed by a Revolutionary Association of the Woman of Afghanistan activist smuggling a camera under her own burka.

Caution: This video is (in)famous enough, thanks to its inclusion in the documentary Beneath the Veil, that you’ve probably already seen it. But it’s still a graphic image of a woman shot through the head at point-blank range. (From around 2:20)

The book With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan expands somewhat on RAWA’s calculations on this occasion, on the young activist who pulled off the risky filming, and on the purportedly hostile-to-the-Taliban crowd reaction.

* Some web resources give Nov. 17 as the date, but all the (admittedly limited) primary documentation available appears to me to point definitively to Nov. 16. RAWA, which shot the video, posts it with this date; wire copy that ran in western papers on Nov. 16 (here) and Nov. 17 (here) attributed the execution to Nov. 16.

** It’s not clear to me how dependable the information about the executee is; it’s said that she had been in prison well over a year but was rather suddenly executed for the Taliban’s exigent reasons of public intimidation. It’s also said that her husband’s family forgave her — which, under sharia as practiced by, e.g., Saudi Arabia, ought to have spared her life — and that Zarmeena herself may not have understood or believed that she was actually going to be executed until the very last moment.

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1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother

Add comment November 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.

The Ottoman Empire, once the very terror of western Christendom, entered the 19th century in a stagnation that had it well on its way to its way to “sick man of Europe” status.

Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.

And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.

Aggressive Progressive

Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*

Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.

Possessive Regressive

The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)

They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.

That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.

Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.

Impressive Successive

That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.

It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that

[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.

Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.

Passive Aggressive?

The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.

Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.

The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.

But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,

Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …

* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.

** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”

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1963: Four Cubans as CIA spies

Add comment November 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1963, the Cuban government shot four of its citizens as “counterrevolutionaries” and CIA spies — capping a week that had seen 13 such executions in all at Havana’s Cabana Fortress.

This date’s batch consisted of (per the Nov. 15, 1963 New York Times) Argimiro Fonseca Fernandez, Wilfredo Alfonso Ibanez, Israel Rodriguez Lima and Erasmo Machin Garcia; they were supposed to have scouted spots around the island for a potential landing of invading exiles. For some reason, Cuba was paranoid about the possibility.

Four others — Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales, according to the Nov. 13 New York Times — had been shot on Nov. 12 for similar crimes; they had supposedly attempted to make an armed landing on a boat out of Florida. Five others (whose names I have not located) were reported executed on Nov. 8.

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1676: Col. Thomas Hansford, the first American independence martyr

5 comments November 13th, 2010 Headsman

Col. Thomas Hansford was hanged “a loyal subject and a lover of my country” on this date in 1676 — America’s first executed political martyr, since that “country” was not England, but Virginia.

Robert Beverly‘s 1705 History of Virginia recalls the genesis of that milestone dispute between settlers and mother England.

The occasion of this rebellion is not easy to be discovered: but ’tis certain there were many things that concurred towards it. For it cannot be imagined, that upon the instigation of two or three traders only, who aimed at a monopoly of the Indian trade, as some pretend to say, the whole country would have fallen into so much distraction; in which people did not only hazard their necks by rebellion, but endeavored to ruin a governor, whom they all entirely loved, and had unanimously chosen; a gentleman who had devoted his whole life and estate to the service of the country, and against whom in thirty-five years experience there had never been one single complaint. Neither can it be supposed, that upon so slight grounds, they would make choice of a leader they hardly knew, to oppose a gentleman that had been so long and so deservedly the darling of the people. So that in all probability there was something else in the wind, without which the body of the country had never been engaged in that insurrection.

Four things may be reckoned to have been the main ingredients towards this intestine commotion, viz., First, The extreme low price of tobacco, and the ill usage of the planters in the exchange of goods for it, which the country, with all their earnest endeavors, could not remedy. Secondly, The splitting the colony into proprieties, contrary to the original charters; and the extravagant taxes they were forced to undergo, to relieve themselves from those grants. Thirdly, The heavy restraints and burdens laid upon their trade by act of Parliament in England. Fourthly, The disturbance given by the Indians.

Tobacco aside, these are grievances straight from the next century’s Declaration of Independence at the outset of the (more successful) American Revolution:

cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

… imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

So, tax revolt + political self-determination + impatience about arrangements with Indians who could be wiped out instead. Eventually, this would germinate a mighty empire.

In 1676, it germinated a colonial rebellion against the mighty empire — Bacon’s Rebellion, an unsuccessful rising that is easily read in retrospect as a prototype for the more illustrious revolt one century later.

The suppression of Bacon’s Rebellion also involved a rash of executions, which we’ve touched on before. King Charles II would complain that his Virginia governor’s severity “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

The man dignified to be the first of these executions — and therefore, if you like, the first man put to death in the service of American liberty — was actually nabbed by our historian’s father, also named Robert Beverly, “a parson calculated to the Lattitude of the Servis, which required descretion, Curage, & Celerity, as qualetys wholly subservant to military affares.” (source)

snapt up one Coll: Hansford, and his party … It is saide that Hansford, at (or a little before) the onslaut, had forsaken the Capitole of Marss, to pay his oblations in the Temple of Venus; which made him the easere preay to his enemies; but this I have onely upon report, and must not aver it upon my historicall reputation: But if it was soe, it was the last Sacryfize he ever after offered at the Shrine of that Luxurious Diety, for presently after that he came to Accomack, he had the ill luck to be the first Berginian borne that dyed upon a paire of Gallows. When that he came to the place of Execution (which was about a Mile removed from his prisson) he seemed very well resalved to undergo the utmost mallize of his not over kinde Destinie, onely Complaineing of the manner of his death: Being observed neather at the time of his tryall (which was by a Court Martiall) nor afterwards, to suplicate any other faviour, then that he might be shot like a Soulder, and not to be hang’d like a Dog. But it was tould him, that whwat he so passionately petitioned for could not be granted, in that he was not condem’d as he was merely a Soulder, but as a Rebell, taken in Arms against the King, whose Laws had ordained him that death. Dureing the short time he had to live, after his sentance, he approved to his best advantage for the well fare of his soule, by repentance and contrition for all his Sinns, in generall, excepting his Rebelellion, which he would not acknowledg; desireing the People, at the place of execution, to take notis that he dyed a Loyall Subject, and a lover of his Countrey; and that he had never taken up arms, but for the destruction of the Indians, who had murthered so many Christians.

(A modernized, and less atmospheric, version of the same passage can be read here.)

Hansford’s story and the larger one of Bacon’s Rebellion are treated at second hand in several public-domain histories available online — see here, here, and here.

It also seems that, besides being the first martyr to American liberty, Hansford also had the distinction of being the first native-born Virginian (white Virginian, we presume) ever executed.

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1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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1761: John Perrott, bankrupt debtor

3 comments November 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1761, John Perrott was hanged at Smithfield for fraudulent bankruptcy.

Perrott was one of the bare handful of British subjects executed during the last century that bankruptcy legislation officially came with hemp teeth; he’s sometimes noted as the last bankrupt put to death, although in reality, he was simply the most famous of the last few.


John Perrott hanged at Smithfield (detail view; click for full image). From here.

He got famous in the usual way.

A once-reputable merchant who blew his fortune in the late 1750s? That backstory does not get you into the Newgate Calendar.

Fortune blown by siphoning creditors’ money to shady mistress, then refusing to divulge the particulars? Now you’re talking. It’s a wonderful vignette in the annals of moralism to find Perrott on the eve of his execution keeping mum on the subject because he had already received his last Sacrament — the inference being that in speaking, he would only sully his soul with a lie.

It was an aggravating position for his creditors, who had reason to believe that there remained recoverable cash, in the hands of his “Mrs. Ferne” or elsewhere.

Creditors always get stuck in a bind when debt goes bad.

The death penalty for bankruptcy has a long and illustrious history, back to the Roman Twelve Tables with its Shylock-like right for the aggrieved lenders to cut the debtor apart into parts proportional to their lost investments, de debitore in partes secando.*

Still, that stern corporal stricture has tended to run up against the simple fact that creditors are financially interested parties whose benefit is almost always better served by keeping their debtor among the living where he might be capable of repairing some part of his bond. Slavery, therefore, was often preferred by the ancients and retains a symbiotic relationship to debt to this day: to force the service of a debt, make a man your slave; likewise, to force someone into slavery, make him your debtor. Human traffickers love this tactic.

At any rate, English bankruptcy law as it evolved was a strange hybrid of public (criminal prosecutions) and private (creditors initiated and paid for the prosecutions). Bluffing a charge at the Old Bailey was just one potential strategem in the contentious relationship between borrower and lender, and not the most effective one, as this Duke law journal article (pdf) by Emily Kadens notes:

“[I]f this Bill Pass,” [critics of a 1706 bankruptcy measure] warned, “it will never be executed.” The latter prognostication turned out to be virtually correct. Creditors prosecuted infrequently because of the severity of the punishment and the cost and difficulty involved. Even when creditors did bring lawsuits, juries may have been reluctant to convict not only because of the penalty but also because they understood the potential for fraud in the bankruptcy system itself … A man was made a bankrupt by the ex parte declaration of a person claiming to be a creditor … The alleged bankrupt had no right to object … In the meantime, his alleged creditors had taken possession of his assets, leaving him nothing with which he could fight his case, unless he committed a felony by concealing his assets or had friends or family support him.

That fraud aspect was essential to making it, as Perrott did, so far as the gallows; plain-vanilla bankruptcy was not in itself a capital offense, but a debtor hiding his assets in the process changed matters. The law distinguished the accidental bankruptcy (e.g., the ship with your imports sunk) from the larcenous: “To the misfortunes … of debtors, the law has given a compassionate remedy,” Blackstone notes. “But denied it to their faults.” Which is not to say that many, many debtors did not indulge these “faults.”

It was nearly two full years from the time Perrott sat his lenders down in a tavern in — naturally — Cheapside to give them the bad news that he was a little bit short, until the time he met the hangman. In that span, auditors picking through the wreck of his estate gradually became aware that the numbers didn’t add up, and his bum business practices (selling 20% below cost to obtain ready cash) still left up to 17,000 missing pounds unexplained.

By the by, the emergence into the investigation of a paramour, who then turned out to be hiding Perrott-issued banknotes, transformed an ordinary bankruptcy into one of those felonious asset-concealment situations. (And, into fine tabloid fodder for the broadsheets.) When Perrott wouldn’t come clean with the whereabouts of his purloined boodle, his creditors had him up on hanging charges. And when Perrott still wouldn’t come clean — Sacrament and all — he stiffed his lenders at the last by leaving them no way to recover their swag.

Hopefully, Mrs. Ferne was worth the trouble.

* More discussion of the Roman jurisprudence here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Sex,Theft

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