Archive for May, 2011

1841: Marius Darmes, frustrated regicide

1 comment May 31st, 2011 Headsman

Louis-Philippe, the affable, ovate monarch of France’s bourgeoisie from 1830 until the revolutionary year of 1848, was a popular guy for radicals to take a shot at.

By one expansive reckoning, there were no fewer than 19 assassination attempts against the Pear King, and five executions of intended regicides.

This date in 1841 saw the beheading of one Ennemond Marius Darmès for attempting to gun down the French king the previous October.

There was no mystery as to the shooter’s identity; the enthusiastic regicide had overstuffed his weapon with powder, and when he took his potshot it simply blew up in his hands. “I had him!” Darmes fumed as he was being arrested. “I was sure of my aim!” The only guy he had actually injured was himself. (Source)

Though it didn’t harm the king, the alarming incident did help precipitate the fall of a precarious and self-dealing government led by Adolphe Thiers, whose most illustrious appearance in these executioners’ annals was yet thirty years away.

With Thiers out of the way and a foe more doctrinaire animating the government, the ensuing months’ investigation were dedicated to tracing a connection between Darmes and alleged co-conspirators among revolutionary Parisians … a lot increasingly disaffected by the July Monarchy’s extreme oligarchical outlook.

And in a performance familiar in our own day, the terroristic extremity provided convenient pretext upon which to shush the much wider portion of the populace dissatisfied with the state. You’re either with us or you’re against us!

These desperate assailants of the King’s life are goaded on by the more cautious and even more unprincipled party who assail his character [Louis-Philippe himself made this same claim -ed.] … It is impossible, indeed, to foresee what the secret arts of calumny and the secret daring of their bloodthirsty illuminati may not effect; but we may say, with hearty English respect, when we look out upon these dangers, “God save the King!” (London Times editorial, May 31, 1841)

Out of solidarity or pride of ownership, Darmes denied those connections all the way to the shadow of the blade: two men who went on trial for their lives with him were acquitted.

According to a report filed by the London Times‘ Paris correspondent (printed June 2, 1841),

At half-past 5 o’clock this morning he was called down from his cell to the greffe, where the fatal toilette was to be performed previous to the execution. He quietly submitted to the operation, and when it was over, he mounted with his confessor into a vehicle, commonly called ponier a salade, which is used for the conveyance of prisoners. This carriage, escorted by municipal guards, cuirassiers, and chasseurs, proceeded up the Rue de l’Ouest, Rue d’Enfer and the adjoining Boulevard, down to the Barriere St. Jacques, where the scaffold had been erected during the night. Few spectators were in attendance. At 5 o’clock all the avenues leading to the Barriere had been occupied by the military, all traffic interrupted, and the people, who had congregated near the scaffold, were driven back a considerable distance. After he had alighted from the carriage his sentence was again read to him. The clergyman then took leave of him, and he ascended the steps of the ladder with a steady pace, followed by the executioner’s aids. It was only when he reached the platform that he came within view of the people; his head was still covered with a black veil, and a white shirt enveloped his whole body down to the feet, which were bare. The executioner having placed him with his back to the guillotine, a dialogue appeared to pass between them; and, from the negative shake of the head which Darmes occasionally gave, it was supposed that the executioner had held out to him a hope of salvation if he would make revelations. The conversation occupied between three and four minutes; the aids then seized him, and having placed him with his face towards the knife removed the black veil from his eyes, and took off his shirt. The sight of the instrument of execution appeared to strike him with awe; he started, and, feeling rather unsteady of his legs, he made a stride in order to maintain his equilibrium, and then looked on with calmness, surrendered himself into the hands of the executioner, and an instant before the knife dropped he was heard to exclaim — Vive la France. The body and head were then placed in a basket, and conveyed to the cemetery of Mont-Parnasse, where they were interred in the enclosure exclusively reserved for regicides.

Our favorite part of that is that the cemetery had a special VIP section set aside for regicides. Only in France.


Francophones can enjoy this French-language report on the investigation.

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2010: 18 in Libya

Add comment May 30th, 2011 Headsman

Last year on this date, Libya — having just days prior been controversially elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council* — celebrated by conducting 18 firing squad executions.

State media reported that 14 were shot in Tripoli, and four more in Benghazi, in unspecified cases that Amnesty International “fear[ed] … fail to satisfy international standards for fair trial.”

Among them were nationals of Nigeria, Chad, and Egypt who, particularly in the first case, might have been condemned at a tribunal entirely conducted in a language they could not understand.

Qaddafi’s Libya has always been opaque about its practice of capital punishment; if it met the international outcry for more information about these 18, this site is not aware of it.

But as with Libya’s neighbor in the so-called Arab Spring, it’s one small reminder that what goes around occasionally (maybe) comes around too.

* In view of the current unpleasantness, Tripoli has recently been suspended from the body.

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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

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1872: Franks survives Fiji’s first hanging

Add comment May 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1872, the Melanesian realm of Fiji was favored with its first official public hanging.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Enjoy this comprehensive botch from the firsthand account relayed by the New York Times:


A Fiji Execution.

The first attempt made in Fiji to carry a capital sentence into effect brought about one of the most remarkable incidents to be found in the annals of public executions. The Fiji Times of June 1 furnishes the following account:

“A horrible and brutalizing scene was witnessed last Tuesday morning by a number of persons who went to see the execution of the man Franks for the murder of Mr. Thomas Muir on board the Marion Rennie. He had been sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, and was to have been hanged on Monday, the 27th ult., but a gross miscarriage of justice was allowed to occur.

“The time appointed came and went, but the execution did not take place, for the simple reason that it did not suit the private convenience of the Sheriff. The poor wretch, who had by anticipation suffered the horrors of death, was then left in all the harrowing and unimaginable anxiety and uncertainty as to his fate from hour to hour until late in the evening, when he was informed that he must be hanged in the morning at 6 o’clock.

“Every preparation was made the previous night, the rope was fixed, and the noose adjusted. Rain fell, however, and wetted the rope, which was a very thick one, and in the morning it had to be dried before a fire. The time came, the rope was again fixed, the culprit and the hangman were on the scaffold, and before slipping the noose over the wretched man’s head the hangman had to sit down and place one of his feet in and pull with all his might to make the knot run; then after placing it over Frank’s head he had the utmost difficulty in making it fit anything like tight, but not nearly so tight as it should have been.

“Then the drop fell, and when the rope tightened with a slow dull thud, Franks was apparently dead for about three minutes, when his limbs began to move and he gave several groans, and then spoke. He prayed of those around him to put him out of his agony, to ‘let him meet his Maker in peace.’

“Then, through being improperly pinioned, he raised one arm and got hold of the rope, and so partly relieved himself from the fearful strain upon his neck. He still continued to beg to be put out of his misery, telling them he forgave them for the ‘black job’ they had made of it.

“But the frightful scene was not yet over.

“One of the officials, (the deputy was not to be found,) on the impulse of the moment, ran and cut the man down, when he fell heavily to the ground, there not being any attempt to catch him in his fall. Franks was then removed to the prison.

“Thus ended this ‘black job,’ which for horror is almost unparalleled. Its effect upon the spectators was such that one strong man actually fainted away.

“Thus the majesty of the law in Fiji has been asserted. Its most terrible sentence, death, has been attempted to be inflicted, and signally failed.

“The wretched man, after the terrible ordeal through which he passed, has been reprieved. Had another attempt been made to hang him, so strong was the feeling of indignation on the beach, we fully believe there would have been a riot.

“The question arises as to what should be done with the man. He has to all intents and purposes suffered the penalty of the law. Twice he has experienced horrors the like of which no man can imagine, and after being hanged and cut down by the officials, surely his punishment has ceased.

“The sentence was that he be hanged until ‘dead,’ but instead of being so hanged the officers of the law cut him down before death. The man should be free, for it must be clear that the law cannot punish him twice for the same offense.

“The best way to do now would be to pay his passage out of the country, and be rid of such a fellow from among us.

“Franks states that when the bolt was drawn and he fell, he thought he felt something break at the back of his neck, and he was praying and thinking of God and heaven. Then the memory of a wreck from which he was rescued passed before his mind. He saw himself cling to the chains till washed away; then seizing a rope attached to a floating spar, and clinging to it until washed back again on deck by a heavy sea. All the details of the wreck passed through his mind, and then came the thought, ‘Why do I not die?’ And finding he could breathe he suspected foul play and an intention to torture him by prolonging his sufferings. Then he spoke and clutched the rope, willing and wishing to die, but not a prolonged death.”

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1941: Mirjam Sara P., T4 victim

1 comment May 27th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1941, a twenty-two-year-old woman known only as Mirjam Sara P. was executed/murdered by means unknown, probably gassing.

The notice of her death was postmarked “Cholm Insane Asylum.” However, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes in his book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, there was no such place: “As far as can be determined, the Cholm Insane Asylum was a fiction.”

Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”

Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.

T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.

Open criticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.

Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.

What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:

This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.

Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.

The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had

… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.

The second doctor agreed:

P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …

Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.

Back to Germany.

The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.

To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.

Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”

For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.

Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.

After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.

After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:

In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.

The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.

A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”

Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.

In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”

Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road

On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.

Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,

Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.

Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.

The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”

In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.

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1647: Alse Young, the first witchcraft execution in New England

Add comment May 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1647, the state of Connecticut carried out the first recorded execution of a witch in the American colonies.

A good half-century before the more renowned Salem witch trials, Alse Young — about whom little is recorded safe her infernal affiliations — hanged at Windsor for her devilry.

She was the first of several in Connecticut to suffer that penalty over the generation to come.

And though we’d be happy to blather on about it, we think you’ll find that Tim Abbott’s peripatetic Walking the Berkshires blog — still a font of compelling and original content in its sixth year on the beat — has Alse Young (and early Connecticut witchery) covered.

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1911: Laura and Lawrence Nelson lynched

3 comments May 25th, 2011 Headsman

A century ago today* Laura Nelson and her son Lawrence were lynched outside Okemah, Oklahoma.

“Two weeks ago,” mused the May 26, 1911 Tulsa World “Deputy Sheriff George H. Loney went to the Nelson home in search of some stolen meat. He found it and started to make an arrest when he was shot and killed. Both the Nelson woman and her son at first claimed to have fired the fatal shot, but it was later admitted that it was the son who fired it.”

So Laura found her way into the annals of lynched women by that most quintessentially maternal act: attempting to protect her child.

The bodies were posted partway down the road to a nearby all-black township — one little incendiary signpost en route to Oklahoma’s coming racial explosion.

As is typical in lynchings, the perpetrators remained permanently wink-wink “unknown”; indeed, the resulting investigation contributed some outstanding exemplars of racist patronizing — like the investigating judge’s charge to his grand jury of “the duty devolv[ing] upon us of a superior race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race from unjustifiable and lawless attacks.”

Thanks?

At least that compared favorably on the sympathy scale to the state’s governor, who slated the NAACP for stoking mob violence when the latter pressed for more vigorous anti-lynching action.

If your organization would interest itself to the extent of seeing that such outrages as this [i.e., the appointment of black federal officials in the state] are not perpetrated against our people, there would be fewer lynchings in the South than at this time, and you can do a great deal more to aid the Negro by seeing that other people of our section of the country are considered in these matters than you can issuing abusive statements against this country when a crime of this kind is committed.

Actually, a tweak here and there and that paragraph could go right into a present-day stump speech. The past, as they say, is not even past.


View Larger Map
The site of the lynching: present-day Route 56 where it crosses the North Canadian River west of Okemah.

One face in the crowd — his exact role in the lynching seems to be unknown — was a local real estate man by the name of Charley Guthrie.

This blustery conservative southern Democrat would, the next year, name his third child for the Confederate-friendly academic Woodrow Wilson, who was then making a run for the White House that would see the U.S. to the nadir of its race relations.

Young Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — you know him as Woody — grew up with some different principles from dad; the counterculture folk troubadour was sufficiently haunted by his father’s proximity to this horrific exercise of mob justice to expiate it in song.

* Many web sites give the date as May 23, but the primary sources are unequivocal; the correct date is May 25.

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2007: Christopher Newton

Add comment May 24th, 2011 Headsman

After Christopher Newton’s death in Lucasville, Ohio by lethal injection on this day in 2007, his attorney read a prepared last statement that apologized for the murder of a fellow inmate: “If I could take it back, I would.”

But the evidence of the “bizarre” execution says Newton was right where he wanted to be.

From the time the obese career criminal (pdf) garroted his cellmate in 2001,* he cooperated with investigators only to the extent that cooperation would grease the wheels of that so-called machinery of death. The entire thing was engineered to get Newton his last parole.

It still took him over five years to land on a gurney, but if you think that’s inefficient, get a load of the execution itself.

For going on two hours, the injection team poked and prodded at Newton’s veins in vain, trying to squeeze a lethal shunt into its gargantuan subject.

“We have told the team to take their time,” read a sign that a prison spokesperson held up in the hush-hush viewing chamber an hour into this discomfiting procedure. “His size is creating a problem.”

Minutes later, the 19-stone condemned man got a bathroom break during his own execution.

So far as anyone could see, the delay was anything but agony for Newton, who was generally observed smiling, laughing, and chatting it up with the prison personnel who were struggling to kill him. Finally, they managed to do it — an achievement which Ohio has latterly demonstrated is by no means a given.

* And allegedly drank some of Jason Brewer’s blood to boot, though this claim proceeding from a man who was intentionally pursuing a death sentence merits skepticism.

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1673: Thomas Cornell, on spectral evidence

1 comment May 23rd, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1673, alleged mother-slayer and arsonist Thomas Cornell was hanged in Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island.

The death of his elderly mother, Rebecca, and the subsequent homicide investigation have got to be one of the strangest murder stories in American colonial history.

The Cornells were a respectable and prosperous Quaker family, the ancestors of the man who founded Cornell University. (Their descendants also included Lizzie Borden of the “forty whacks” fame, but that’s another story.)

Rebecca, a 73-year-old widow, was the legal owner of the family’s hundred-acre spread by Narragansett Bay. Her oldest son, Thomas, and his wife and six children lived there with her, along with one lodger and one male servant, a Narragansett Indian named Wickopash.

Crowded as the house was, Rebecca had the master bedroom all to herself. It was well known that Rebecca and Thomas didn’t get along. For some time, both parties had been complaining bitterly about each other to anyone who would listen. Thomas resented the fact that, at 46, he was still financially dependent on his mother, who had made generous gifts from her late husband’s estate to her other children but not to him. Rebecca, for her part, said Thomas was “a Terror to her” and that she was neglected and had to fetch her own firewood.

None of her complaints were taken seriously until after her mysterious death, which is chronicled in Elaine Forman Crane’s 2002 book Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.

Rebecca died on the evening of February 8, 1673.

That night, she refused to join the family for dinner because she didn’t like what was being served. After the meal was over, her grandson came to her room to check on her and found her charred body lying on the floor by the fireplace, burnt “to a cole.” She was recognizable only by her shoes.

Her death was originally ruled “an unhappie accident.”

It could have been spontaneous human combustion, but a more likely explanation is that embers from the fireplace or from the pipe Rebecca smoked landed on her dress.


An alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.

No one heard her scream, no one smelled smoke, and somehow the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the house. No one seems to have suspected foul play at that time.

Two nights later, however, Rebecca’s younger brother, John Briggs, received a spiritual visitation from his sister as she slept. “See how I was burned with fire,” she said. He inferred that someone had intentionally burned her.

Briggs didn’t report his experience for a week, but when he did his account was taken seriously by the superstitious colonials. Rebecca’s body was exhumed and given a thorough inspection, and this time a wound was found on her upper abdomen. The authorities decided she had been stabbed by something like “the iron spyndell of a spinning whelle.” No murder weapon was ever produced, however.

Thomas quickly became the prime suspect: he was the last person to see Rebecca alive, and the whole town knew of the enmity between them. After Rebecca’s death, Thomas and his wife Sarah reportedly made some incredibly crass remarks; Sarah said her mother-in-law’s demise was “a wonderfull thing,” and Thomas said that his mother had always liked a good fire, and “God had answered her ends, for now shee had it.”

This hearsay was presented as evidence at Thomas’s trial, along with John Briggs’s dream.

Thomas was convicted and, although many of the townspeople had doubts about the verdict and death sentence, he chose not to appeal. He was hung before a crowd of over one thousand people.

Did Thomas Cornell murder his mother?

Certainly he wasn’t the only one who had the opportunity to do so; the house was full of people that night. In fact, a year after Thomas’s death, the servant Wickopash was tried as an accomplice to the murder. Nothing is known about the case against him, but he was acquitted.

In 1675, Rebecca’s son William tried to make a case against Thomas’s wife for the murder, but he failed to produce any witnesses or evidence against her.

Was this even a murder at all?

The fire, as noted above, could have been accidental; as for the “suspicious wound” the authorities found after they dug up the body, Rebecca could have stabbed herself in her struggles after her dress caught fire, or perhaps those who performed the exhumation saw only what they expected to see.

And there is yet a third possibility: prior to her death, Rebecca told her daughter she had contemplated suicide on several occasions, but her religious beliefs prohibited such action.

One final note: Thomas’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant at the time of his execution and later gave birth to a daughter.

She named the baby Innocent.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Rhode Island,The Supernatural,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2001: Terrance Anthony James, snitch-killer

Add comment May 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2001, Terrance Anthony James suffered lethal injection in Oklahoma for the vicious murder of a suspected jailhouse snitch.

Awaiting trial in 1983 for theft of government property, James became convinced that a fellow-inmate was responsible for his arrest, and proceeded to strangle Mark Allen Berry with a wire.

Usually, in death penalty cases, it’s the jailhouse snitch who does the killing.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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