Archive for March, 2011

1873: William Foster

1 comment March 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1873, William Foster — who spent two years warding off execution — finally succumbed to New York’s hangman.

Foster’s case was a long-term headline-grabber: he drunkenly accosted a couple of perfect strangers on the Broadway Line (think horses, not trains), then smashed the man of the party, Avery Putnam, with a conductor’s device going by the sinister name of “car-hook”. His case turned, both juridically and in the public eye, on the question of whether Foster had formed an “intent” sufficient to justify a first-degree murder conviction; the killer’s own jury later joined appeals for his reprieve, having felt buffaloed by public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

This case also clearly had a significant class component — a respectable gentleman randomly slain by a workingman — and the newspapers’ coverage frequently touches on obvious bourgeois anxiety, or uncertainty as to just how badly those of Foster’s socioeconomic position would take the hanging.

These and other themes of the media coverage will look very familiar a century and a half later. The only things missing are the tweets.

The Editorial Board

New York Times, May 28, 1871

Abolish the Car-Hook.

… the fatal weapon which slew Mr. Putnam … a weapon which we know to be deadly is so familiar to the hands, and possibly the heads of a large portion of the population, that they think nothing of using it at all. Of course the statement on which we found these conclusions may be incorrect. But it seems probable enough, and is confirmed by the numerous cases of assault with car-hooks reported since the Putnam murder. Before the light of that great tragedy brought into unusual prominence the fatal tool, it is fair to presume that it was not less active in its work of evil than at present.

It is not pleasant, then, to reflect that every time we travel on a horse-car whose conductor or driver hapens to be a trifle drunk, or unusually passionate and vindictive, we run a certain risk, slight it may be, still an appreciable risk, of being brained with an instrument to which the assailant’s hand instinctively turns. And since temptation is the firmest ally of crime, we might very properly begin our street-car reform by abolishing the car-hook altogether … Even if the replacing appliance be less convenient for the purposes, and less satisfactory in its workings, it is better that the driver should have a little more trouble and delay than that he should have constantly at hand a means and a provocative to murder. We do not doubt, however, that the present model of car-hook may readily be improved on, and at the expense of a little ingenuity, made not only harmless, but more complete.

The Murderer

New York Times, June 4, 1871

FOSTER’S APPEAL.

The Condemned Prisoner Reviews His Case.

He Never Intended to Kill Mr. Putnam — The Verdict of Death the Result of Public Resentment — He Thinks He Has Been Unjustly Treated.

TO THE PUBLIC: Sufficient time has elapsed since my conviction for the murder of Mr. Putnam to allow me to make that appeal to the cool judgment of the public which my counsel could not make in a court-room, oppressed by the usual legal formalities. I have not much to say, but in my awful position what little appeal I make is invested with a terrible importance, to me at least. After a short and impartial trial, before the case was submitted to the jury, Judge Cardozo* charged almost directly in my favor — at least, in modification of the verdict. He directed the jury that a fit of passion did not imply the requisite degree of malice justifying a verdict of murder in the first degree. He almost as much as told them that in my case there was no evidence proving that I intended to kill Mr. Putnam — that death was a result I never contemplated, and that however furious the resentment of the public might be, it would not be in accordance with their oath to convict me of a malicious purpose to kill Mr. Putnam.

The jury was evidently inclined to regard this direction of Judge Cardozo, but they were afraid to abide by it thoroughly. Public opinion was too strong; and because, I believe, it did not stop to consider my case coolly, it compelled that jury to bring me in guilty of downright murder in the first degree. But even then they went as far as they dared in recommending me to mercy. They recommended me to mercy because they felt that there was something wrong with the rest of their verdict, and they wanted to make the best balance they could without taking any responsibility themselves. Now I make this appeal from my condemned cell, because the public are beginning to believe with Judge Cardozo. Judge Cardozo said the truth. He said I never meant to kill Mr. Putnam. He knew from the very evidence that there was nothing further from my intention — and it is the intention which makes the crime.

What are the facts of the case? I had been drinking heavily — God knows I can’t excuse that. I was stupid drunk, mad drunk, and I got into a drunken difficulty with a strange man. That was Mr. Putnam. He said something which aggravated my drunken madness. Without any thought, without any calculation, on the impulse of blind fury, I struck him with the first thing that came to hand. That blow was never intended to kill Mr. Putnam. It was struck with hardly any intention at all. It was the work of a madman, not of a deliberate murderer. It was struck with no recognized weapon — just the first thing that came to hand. If it had fallen on the top of his head it would probably never have killed him. But it did kill him, and for the blow which I struck, without having any definite intention, resulting in his death, I am condemned to death in revenge. No one will pretend to say that I deliberately set about to effect Mr. Putnam’s death. I made no attempt to escape. I identified myself. I claimed to have struck him, having no idea, no earthly notion that my drunken blow would result in bringing about my conviction of murder.

Public resentment and exasperation brought about the verdict. There are men in the Tombs who have killed others soberly, in cold blood, and there has been no hue and cry after them. A man who had a quarrel with another and then went home and procured a knife with which he came back and stabbed him to death, deliberately and in cold blood, was sent to Sing Sing for four years the other day. There are others in this prison convicted of murder with weapons known to be deadly — so that their intentions in using them could not be doubted a moment — and they are safe. … I was tried out of my turn … while the public was resolved to have my blood as soon as possible. Out of these I alone am selected to undergo capital punishment, because mine was a sensational case.

No one can doubt the truth of this, and it is because this is the truth known to God and sworn to by me in the shadow of death, that I make my appeal to the public. I am doomed to die because a wicked drunken freak resulted in the death of a man, whom I no more intended to harm seriously than I would my own child … Is the recommendation to mercy to mean nothing? Does anybody refuse to see in it the protest of the jury against the pressure which forced them to bring me to the gallows? The public, which was furious, compelled the jury to act as it did, and I make my appeal, therefore, to the public.

I implore the public to consider my case, now that I am sentenced, and any evasion of law in my favor is impossible, coolly and dispassionately. I appeal to the public to be just and fear not. And what I have to say in my behalf I say with the solemnity of my situation. I make my appeal as a condemned murderer, sentenced to a speedy and ignominious death, helpless and powerless, but confident that the same feeling which on an impulse secured my conviction, will, when cool and deliberate, do even me proper justice.

WILLIAM FOSTER.

The Widow

New York Times, Nov. 22, 1872

THE PUTNAM MURDER.

The Widow Sues the Railroad Company for Damage.

The murder of Avery D. Putnam, for which William Foster now stands condemned, has been revived in the Courts in a new form. it appears that Mrs. Putnam, the widow, some time since, instituted a suit against the Broadway and Seventh-avenue Railroad Company, to recover damages to the extent of $5,000, (the limit of the law.) for the loss of her husband, which loss she charges to have been the result of the culpable negligence of the Company and its servants.

[she won -ed.]

The Minister

New York Herald-Tribune, March 6, 1873

(One letter among more than an entire page’s worth of clemency petitions the Tribune reprinted, with a note of scorn.)

LETTER FROM THE REV. DR. TYNG.

This young man has been familiarly known to me from his childhood. He grew up in the Sunday school and congregation of my church … of which his family have made a part since his birth. He was always a quiet, orderly, and good boy — he grew up an industrious and well behaved young man — he has never been a bad man or a drunkard.

The whole circumstances of this sad event which has placed him in his present position, he has personally related, very minutely, to me … I have visited him regularly as his pastor. He has presented himself to me as a gentle, quiet, penitent young man, and I have had much encouragement in visiting him.

Foster does not in the least excuse himself from the just infliction and endurance of his sentence, if it be the will of God that he must meet it …

I really think the young man entitled to a commutation of a sentence for willful murder in the first degree … He acted in blind haste, with no malicious intent, and he has groaned in anguish over the remembrance of his crime. His honored parents and excellent family, his young wife and little children, his own industrious life, his really quiet and habitual deportment, his expressions of anger, hostility, or self-defense, unite to present his case to me as one peculiarly appropriate for Executive mercy. … I do not know what efforts others may make in his behalf; but, as the pastor of his family — and of all his early life, and as now his gratefully accepted pastor in the hour of his sorrow — I feel compelled to implore for him the mercy which you alone can exercise.

Stephen Tyng

[Tyng, an Episcopal, was a celebrity preacher in the Big Apple, and built an early “megachurch”. He is the namesake of, but unrelated to, the man who founded the U.S. National Park System — Stephen Tyng Mather. -ed.]

The Humorist

New York Herald-Tribune, March 10, 1873

Sir: I have read the Foster petitions in Thursday’s Tribune. The lawyers’ opinions do not disturb me, because I know that those same gentlemen could make as able an argument in favor of Judas Iscariot, which is a great deal for me to say, for I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.** The attitude of the jury does not unsettle a body, I must admit; and it seems plain that they would have modified their verdict to murder in the second degree if the Judge’s charge had permitted it. But when I come to the petitions of Foster’s friends and find out Foster’s true character, the generous tears will flow — I cannot help it. How easy it is to get a wrong impression of a man. I perceive that from childhood up this one has been a sweet, docile thing, full of pretty ways and gentle impulses, the charm of the fireside, the admiration of society, the idol of the Sunday school. I recognize in him the divinest nature that has ever glorified any mere human being. I perceive that the sentiment with which he regarded temperance was a thing that amounted to frantic adoration. I freely confess that it was the most natural thing in the world for such an organism as this to get drunk and insult a stranger, and then beat his brains out with a car-hook because he did not seem to admire it. Such is Foster. And to think that we came so near losing him! How do we know but that he is the Second Advent? And yet, after all, if the jury had not been hampered in their choice of a verdict I think I could consent to lose him.

The humorist who invented trial by jury played a colossal practical joke upon the world, but since we have the system we ought to try to respect it. A thing which is not thoroughly easy to do, when we reflect that by command of the law a criminal juror must be an intellectual vacuum, attaching to a melting heart and perfectly macaronian bowels of compassion.

I have had no experience in making laws or amending them, but still I cannot understand why, when it takes twelve men to inflict the death penalty upon a person, it should take any less than twelve more to undo their work. If I were a legislature, and had just been elected, and had not had time to sell out, I would put the pardoning and commuting power into the hands of twelve able men instead of dumping so huge a burden upon the shoulders of one poor petition-persecuted individual.

Mark Twain

The Future Attorney General

New York Times, March 20, 1873

THE FOSTER CASE.

Letter to Gov. Dix by Edwards Pierrepont.

Judge Edwards Pierrepont has addressed a letter to Gov. Dix on the case of Foster. He says:

The decision of the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the court below, whereby William Foster was condemned to be hanged for the murder of Avery D. Putnam. But that decision would have been precisely the same if Mr. Putnam had appeared in court, and proved that he was still alive … The rigid rules of law do not allow an appellate court to look beyond the record, even though the court might behold the living man, for whose murder the accused was condemned to die.

It is for this very reason, and to meet cases like the one before you, that the high Executive is clothed with extraordinary powers, adequate to correct all such mistakes, and to consider all facts and circumstances outside of the legal record, in furtherance of the highest justice, and beyond the functions of a court of law …

If William Foster is put to death for the premeditated murder of Mr. Putnam, very few of the reflecting community will not believe that he was executed for a greater crime than he in fact committed, and, to avoid the repetition of such an act of injustice, the aggrieved sentiment of the public may demand the abolition of the death penalty entirely.

Foster was convicted a few days after Mr. Putnam died, while the public mind was fevered and alarmed, and the verdict was not in accordance with the real convictions of the jury, nor in harmony with any reasonable deductions from the evidence …

the hanging of Foster would savor more of vengeance than of justice … and the reaction likely to take place in the public mind might cause a repeal of those laws which are now a wholesome restraint upon evil men.

The Aftermath

New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1873

TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD:

Justice can no longer be said to be blindfolded in New York. The verdict in the case of Stokes [murderer of bankster James Fisk -ed.] is a mockery and a farce. Jack Reynolds said, “Hanging for murder is played out in New York;” but his assertion would have been much truer if he ahd added, “for the rich.” If Stokes was not guilty of murder in the first degree then the hanging of Foster was nothing but downright murder. Stokes had not the slightest excuse, while Foster had a great many … The jury must have been influenced by some outside influence or there must have been some flaw in the presentment of the case by the prosecution. This verdict should cause our citizens to blush. It shall be recorded in the history fo our city as an everlasting disgrace and humiliation. Our citizens, it is true, are looking on patiently at this way of administering law; but the time will yet come when they will take the administration (if driven so far) of it into their own hands and adopt the rule of the pioneers of the West for murders – viz., “Lynch law.”

AN ADMIRER OF THE HERALD.

* Father of eventual Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo.

** Congress-bashing is a timeless sport, but the body was in particularly low esteem at this moment because of the Credit Mobilier scandal.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,USA

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

2 comments March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Fictional,God,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1906: Pyotr Schmidt, Sevastopol uprising leader

1 comment March 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, tsarist Russia executed the naval officer who had made bold to style himself Commander of the rebellious Black Sea Fleet.

During the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution, our firebrand Pyotr Schmidt was lieutenant commander of a destroyer stationed at the Black Sea port of Sebastopol/Sevastopol.

Schmidt made an impassioned revolutionary speech that got him arrested, and was in turn freed by protesting workers and soldiers.

So they knew just the guy to call when a collection of Black Sea Fleet vessels finally out and mutinied. And Pyotr Schmidt knew how to talk the talk.

The glorious Black Sea Fleet, sacredly devoted to the people, demands Your Majesty to immediately call a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, and no longer obeys orders of Your ministers.

Commander of the Fleet P. Schmidt.

Nicholas II decided he was better advised to just order the mutinying ships stormed, and Schmidt was taken prisoner.

The most famous ship under Schmidt’s “command” was, of course, the battleship Potemkin, which trumps the cruiser Aurora as the revolutionariest hulk of floating steel in the Russian fleet by virtue of Sergei Eisenstein‘s silent cinematic celebration of the Sevastopol mutiny, The Battleship Potemkin.

With this sort of insurrectionary credential, Schmidt was a popular choice for Soviet-era naming and renaming — streets, bridges, other naval vessels.

(And come this, er, sea change in fortunes, the commander of the firing squad that did Pyotr Schmidt to death was himself arrested, and shot in 1923 by the Cheka.)

Schmidt thereby contributed his name to an entirely different innovation in the Russian language: in one Ostap Bender novel, there’s a “Children of Lieutenant Schmidt” network of con artists each claiming (in a different part of that vast country) to be the martyred mutineer’s progeny and mooching the material comforts due such an impressive lineage.

So striking and popular was this portrayal that “children (or sons) of Lt. Schmidt” remains a going Russian idiom for anyone running a similar scam.

* March 19 was the Gregorian date; it was March 6 by the obsolete Julian calendar still hanging on in Russia at this time.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Language,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1647: Mary Martin, infanticide

Add comment March 18th, 2011 Headsman

From Portland in the Past: With Historical Notes of Old Falmouth, by William Goold.


[Michael Mitton] came from England … in 1637 … [and] lived near the Cape Elizabeth landing of Portland bridge … “One Mr. Mitton related of a triton, or mere-man which he saw in Casco bay. The gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small Island for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopped off with a hatchet by Mr. Mitton, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.” …

There is one indelible blot on the character of Mitton. In 1640, Winter wrote to Trelawney from Richmond’s island this: “Mr. Francis Martin is here with us, and is not settled in any place as yet to remain. This next week I shall go up to Casco with him to seat him in some place there. I know not how he will lie here well, except he have brought money with himself, and here is nothing to be gotten without hard labor.” Martin was evidently a decayed gentleman, or he would not have been styled Mister by Winter. This was an honorable title then. Two years later Winter again mentions Martin to his principal: “Also herein goes a bill upon Mr. John Martin for his uncle Francis Martin. Also he was with us five months and spent upon our provision, and cannot pay for anything. He is in a bad way of living here with his two children. He plants a little Indian corn and that is all he hath to live upon. He hath neither goat nor pig, nor any thing else. He is old and cannot labor, and his children are not brought up to work, so I know not what shift he will make to live.”

These “two children” were daughters. The fate of the eldest is given by Willis, being the substance of her history as written in Winthrop’s journal. Willis says: “Martin, an early inhabitant of Casco, was the father of two daughters, whom, being about to return to England to arrange his affairs, he left in the family of Michael Mitton. During their residence of several months with him in 1646, he insinuated himself into the favor of the eldest, named Mary, whom he seduced. She afterwards went to Boston and was delivered of a bastard child, of which she confessed Mitton to be the father. Overcome with shame, she endeavored to conceal her first crime by the commission of a more heinous one in the murder of her infant; for this she perished on the scaffold at the early age of twenty-two years, in March, 1647.” Cotton Mather says of her trial: “When she touched the face of the child before the jury, the blood came fresh into it, so she confessed the whole truth concerning it.” He also says: “Her carriage in her imprisonment and at her execution was very penitent. But there was this remarkable at her execution. She acknowledged her twice essaying to kill the child, and now through the unskilfulness of the executioner she was turned off the ladder twice, before she died.”

The York records give the date of Mitton’s death to be in 1660.


From the Journal of John Winthrop (also available on Google books):

finding herself to be with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it, and though divers did suspect it, and some told her mistress their fears, yet her behavior was so modest, and so faithful she was in her service, as her mistress would not give ear to any such report, but blamed such as told her of it. But, her time being come, she was delivered of a woman child in a back room by herself upon the 13 (10) (December 13) in the night, and the child was born alive, but she kneeled upon the head of it, till she thought it had been dead, and having laid it by, the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead. Then she put it into her chest, and having cleansed the room, she went to bed, and arose again the next day about noon, and went about her business, and so continued till the nineteenth day, that her master and mistress went on shipboard to go for England.

They being gone, and she removed to another house, a midwife in the town, having formerly suspected her, and now coming to her again, found she had been delivered of a child, which, upon examination, she confessed, but said it was still-born, and so she put it into the fire. But, search being made, it was found in her chest, and when she was brought before the jury, they caused her to touch the face of it, whereupon the blood came fresh into it. Whereupon she confessed the whole truth, and a surgeon, being called to search the body of the child, found a fracture in the skull. Before she was condemned, she confessed, that she had prostituted her body to another also, one Sears. She behaved herself very penitently while she was in prison, and at her death, 18 (1,) (March 18) complaining much of the hardness of her heart. She confessed, that the first and second time she committed fornication, she prayed for pardon, and promised to commit it no more; and the third time she prayed God, that if she did fall into it again, he would make her an example, and therein she justified God, as she did in the rest. Yet all the comfort God would afford her, was only trust (as she said) in his mercy through Christ. After she was turned off and had hung a space, she spake, and asked what they did mean to do. Then some stepped up, and turned the knot of the rope backward, and then she soon died.


Cotton Mather’s father Increase Mather favored the occasion with a sermon on Ezekiel 16:20-21 — “‘is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children?'” Whereof great notice was taken.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1999: Andrew Kokoraleis, the last ever in Illinois?

6 comments March 17th, 2011 Headsman

There was certainly no cause when killer Andrew Kokoraleis suffered lethal injection at 12:34 this afternoon to suppose that his would be the last execution in the illustrious history of Illinois.

Against all odds, however, it was the last.

Illinois has had plenty of poster boys for death penalty foes — Rolando Cruz; the Ford Heights Four — but Andrew Kokoraleis was hardly among them.

As a member of a satanic murder cult branded the Ripper Crew, he’d participated in abducting, raping, mutilating, murdering, and cannibalizing prostitutes under the charismatic sway of one Robin Gecht.*

The exploits of Gecht, Edward Spreitzer, and brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis in the Dark Lord’s services are nauseatingly recounted at trutv.com and the spellbinding true-crime book Deadly Thrills.

By the time Andrew Kokoraleis’s appeals had wended their way through the courts, it was high tide for capital punishment in the United States: a modern record 98 executions were carried out in 1999; a Texas governor best-known to the general public for his prodigious execution output was lining up the White House bid that would hurl America into much deadlier pastimes; a law stripping condemned prisoners of federal appellate avenues had just been passed with overwhelming support. Even liberal Democrats dared not touch the divisive issue of capital punishment for fear of appearing soft on crime.

Though sub-Texan in its gurney output, the Land of Lincoln was cranking out a consistent 1 to 2 executions per year in the late 1990’s. It had just inaugurated a Republican governor who as a lawmaker had voted to reinstitute that state’s death penalty statute. Illinois held well over 100 death row prisoners, including one of Kokoraleis’s own confederates from the Ripper Crew.

So the 21st century figured to present an ample harvest for the Illinois death chamber.

Even as Ryan’s graft-plagued term was beginning, however, the executioner’s swan song was underway.

Just days into Ryan’s term, a man named Anthony Porter, who had avoided execution by the narrowest of margins the year before, walked out of Illinois death row a free man — exonerated by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class.

“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter.”

-George Ryan

Ryan okayed the execution of Kokoraleis six weeks later, but the piqued governor would soon impose an executive moratorium on further executions.

Ryan’s personal journey on the death penalty during his four years in the governor’s office, as linked to his state’s journey over the past decades, must be one of the rare operatic sagas in modern American political life.

Days before he left office (bound for trial on federal corruption charges, and thence to prison), George Ryan emptied death row in Illinois — including a commutation to Ripper Crew member Edward Spreitzer.

Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.

The legislature couldn’t reform it.

Lawmakers won’t repeal it.

But I will not stand for it.

I must act.

Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.

This move drew plenty of criticism, but the George Ryan death penalty moratorium persisted through the terms of his successors.

Finally, legislators did repeal it.

Early in 2011, longstanding efforts to push that moratorium into formal abolition finally bore fruit in the state legislature. After a protracted silence on the matter, Gov. Pat Quinn** finally — just eight days ago as of this posting — signed that legislation into law, simultaneously commuting all the state’s then-existing death sentences.

Naturally, no government can bind its successors, and laws eliminated today might be reinstated tomorrow. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this date in 1999 marks the final destination not just for Andrew Kokoraleis — but for the Illinois executioner.

* To magnify this troupe’s outsized crime-tabloid appeal, Gecht, the leader, had actually worked for legendary serial sex-killer John Wayne Gacy.

** In earlier years, Quinn was a political rival of George Ryan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Illinois,Lethal Injection,Milestones,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1244: Two hundred-plus Cathars at Montsegur

1 comment March 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1244, over two hundred Cathar heretics submitted themselves to the stake rather than submit to the Catholic church.

Though not literally the last of the Cathars, that outlawed dualistic sect in the south of France whose extirpation occupied the papacy for much of the 13th century, this date was the last great stand and the signature massacre of the Albigensian Crusade. Afterwards, only minor outposts and isolated individuals would remain available for mop-up duty.

Heretical holdouts, fleeing a malevolent Inquisition established in the Languedoc by victorious Catholic armies, holed up at a few Cathar strongholds of which the most impressive was the mountain citadel of Montsegur.


The spectacular attraction of Montsegur tourists see today is not the legendary Cathar castle — which was razed by its conquerors — but a subsequent rebuild. (cc) image from SarahLouiseHathaway

Finally in 1243-1244, a massive Catholic army invested Montsegur; one can’t help but compare this hopeless confederation of fearless zealouts ranged against the mighty temporal powers to the Jews at Masada — and as with Masada, it were death to succumb to the besiegers.

When Montsegur finally surrendered, two hundred-some — the reported counts differ slightly — were burned at the stake for refusing to renounce their faith; many of them had actually taken sacred vows in the days before Montsegur fell.

They were Nazis, Dude?

The National Socialists’ weird quest to outrace Indiana Jones for mystical artifacts also brought the swastika to Montsegur, under the direction of the occult medievalist Otto Rahn.

Rahn thought the Holy Grail may have been secreted at Montsegur under Cathar protection, a half-literal, half-metaphorical secret goblet carrying the heretics’ forbidden gnostic wisdom from the day of Mani.

(Other Nazis, allegedly including Heinrich Himmler himself, favored the similar-sounding Spanish fortress of Montserrat. Dan Brown prefers the Knights Templar, who could have laid their gauntlets on the cup of Christ when a few Cathars allegedly slipped through Montsegur’s encirclement carrying some unidentified mysterious secret.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,The Supernatural

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1536: Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman the Magnificent’s friend and grand vizier

67 comments March 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1536,* the Ottoman Empire’s mightiest Grand Vizier was strangled at the order of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Say what you will about the Grand Vizier, the man knew how to enjoy the fruits of his transitory power. This, his Istanbul palace, is today the Museum of Islamic and Turkish Arts. (cc) image from docman

An Albanian [update: and/or Greek] Christian, Ibrahim Pasha — not to be confused with several other historical figures of that name, notably an Egyptian general — found his way into the Ottoman slave quarters and became a boyhood friend of the young Suleiman.

Thereafter the two would rise together: as Sultan, Suleiman rapidly promoted his trusted friend, and even married a sister to him.

So absolute was Ibrahim’s power that Italian diplomats** called him “Ibrahim the Magnificent”. At the Ottomans’ acme, his word was law as surely as his distinguished master’s. Ibrahim’s achievements in war, diplomacy, and as a patron of the arts attested his worthiness of the honors.

Unfortunately, he may have taken those honorifics a little too much to heart.

We do not know the precise cause of Ibrahim Pasha’s fall: only that it was precipitous. Two months after returning from a campaign against the Safavids that reconquered Baghdad, he was put to death, reputedly spurning an opportunity to flee and loyally submitting himself to the Sultan’s punishment. Much as this smacks of poetic amplification, Ibrahim’s last meal was said to be taken dining alone with Suleiman.

It’s impossible that in 13 years as Grand Vizier, this Islamic convert and upstart slave had not won himself powerful enemies — but he lived in Suleiman’s favor, and was destroyed when that favor reversed. One theory of Ibrahim’s fall has it that his self-awarded titles started getting a little bit, er, “magnificent” and Suleiman jealously snuffed out any potential for actual political rivalry. Another looks towards the Ukrainian slave girl who was taking over Suleiman’s harem — Roxelana, who would ruthlessly destroy all the political obstacles to her son’s eventual succession.

Between those two, or other palace machinations, or factors yet un-guessed, Suleiman was induced to destroy his boyhood companion and right-hand man. And in the thirty years the sultan had to outlive his vizier, who knows what pangs conscience held in store.

Dear Lord! Shower me with your grace
Whether there is any remedy other than You I do not know.
Help me, forgive my sins,
Please, help me, forgive my sins.

poetry by Suleiman the Magnificent, writing as “Muhibbi”

* There are some other March 1536 dates out there, but the Ides seems like the strongest.

** Very tight with the Ottomans.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Power,Slaves,Strangled,Treason,Turkey,Volunteers,Wrongful Executions

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2009: Four Iranians

Add comment March 14th, 2011 Headsman

If not for China, Iran’s hundreds of annual executions would put it in a class all its own for capital punishment.

The legions of hanged in Iran are more than this site will ever manage with the biographical care that their friends might demand for their lives: we are doomed to know only a few, and often what we “know” is little more than a name and what an authority figure has accused him of. Ever it is thus: the kings and potentates, the star-crossed lovers and epic villains, make the history books. But most of the headsman’s clients are, like he himself, obscurities.

From Iran Human Rights, March 14, 2009.

March 14: Four people were executed by hanging in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz, reported the Iranian daily newspaper Etemaad today.

According to the report the men were identified as:

  • Abolhassan (age not given), convicted of a murder in 1981
  • 26 years old man (name not given), convicted of murder
  • Young man (name and age not given), convicted of murder
  • 23 years old man (name and age at the time of committing the offence not given), convicted of raping two boys.

    According to our sources, there are several minor offenders on death row in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz.

    In 2008, at least two minor offenders were executed in the Adelabad prison of Shiraz.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Known But To God,Murder,Rape

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2005: A gay couple in Saudi Arabia

3 comments March 13th, 2011 Headsman

Stay classy, Saudi Arabia.

RIYADH—A gay couple was beaded in a public execution Sunday [March 13, 2005] in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of killing a blackmailer. If they had been exposed as gay they could have been executed anyway.

Homosexuality is punishable by flogging, lengthy prison terms or death under Sharia Islamic law.

The Saudi Interior Ministry issued a statement Sunday announcing the execution. It said that Ahmed al-Enezi and Shahir al-Roubli, both Saudis, ran over Malik Khan in their car, beat him on the head with stones and set fire to his corpse “fearing they would be exposed after the victim witnessed them in a shameful situation”.

The term “shameful situation” is regularly used by the government to refer to homosexual acts.

The ministry said the two men were executed in the northern town of Arar, near the Iraq border.

The Saudi government routinely rounds up people suspected of being gay. All that is needed is a complaint from someone. In some instances men who are not gay who have been arrested were picked up on the complaint of a neighbor following a dispute.

The kingdom also, on a number of occasions, has blocked access to the only gay Arab news and information site on the internet.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia,Sex

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2006: The family of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi

5 comments March 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2006, a family of Iraqis was taken prisoner and shot by a group of American soldiers.

This date’s entry is, to be sure, well into and even across the zone of borderline executions: it was crime whose authors are serving long prison sentences (although they ducked execution themselves).

It has the barest trappings of execution, enough to give that name descriptively to the killings — but maybe a little more than that, too, for this is the story of an occupation army whose “bad eggs” are endowed with the power of life and death over their subject population

“We’ve all killed Hadjis, but I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches.”

This is an excerpt of a London Guardian article called “The blackest hearts: War crimes in Iraq,” which is itself an excerpt from a book its author published titled Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.

Barker had already picked the target. There was a house, not far away, where there was only one male and three females during the day – a husband, wife and two daughters. One was young, but the other was pretty hot, at least for a Hadji chick. Witnesses were a problem, though; they knew they couldn’t leave anyone alive. Barker asked Green if he was willing to take care of that, even if women and kids were involved. “Absolutely,” Green said. “It don’t make any difference to me.”

Green — Steven Green — is the troubled private who would do the shooting, and the one over whose life a jury wrangled over for 10 hours before finally sparing him lethal injection.

Sneaking up on the house, the soldiers corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had recovered the family’s AK-47 and Green had confirmed it was locked and loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman set up guard in the doorway between the foyer and living room, while Cortez shoved Abeer into the living room, pushed her down, and Barker pinned her outstretched arms down with his knees.

As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, “They’re all dead. I killed them all.” Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.

The men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Barker brought a kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on Abeer. Spielman handed a lighter to either Barker or Cortez, who lit the flame. Spielman went to the bedroom and found some blankets to throw on the body to stoke the fire.

The four men ran back the way they had come. When they arrived at the TCP, they were out of breath, manic, animated. They began talking rapid-fire about how great that was, how well done. They all agreed that was awesome, that was cool.

Only after Green was discharged did the crime come fully to light.

At Green’s sentencing in the anomalous confines of Kentucky — he was the first former soldier prosecuted in U.S. civilian court for crimes committed overseas under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act — a cousin of Abeer’s murdered parents

spoke last, praising his slain family members and criticising the jury’s reluctance to execute Green. He concluded by turning to Green and saying, “Abeer will follow you and chase you in your nightmares. May God damn you.”

This incident is the subject of the 2007 film Redacted.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Iraq,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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