Archive for August, 2011

1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento

1 comment August 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.

According to Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, all three had been condemned to death under the brand-new state‘s brand-new Criminal Practices Act, making theft a capital offense.

They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.

Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**

The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.

The Executions in Sacramento City

The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.

We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.

THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.

Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …

As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …

The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.

The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.

A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.

While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …

The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”

The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.

The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.

Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.

After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.

* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.

** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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2010: Four in Equatorial Guinea

1 comment August 21st, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this date last year, four Equatorial Guinean men were executed immediately after they were convicted of treason in a military court in the tiny African nation’s capital of Malabo.

The defendants, all former military officers, reportedly confessed to attacking the presidential palace in February 2009, supposedly in an attempt to assassinate the president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

Fortunately for him, he wasn’t in residence that day.

The attack had originally been blamed on Nigerian militants; in the aftermath, seven Nigerian men were sentenced to prison for their alleged involvement, and dozens of Nigerian expatriates were expelled from the country.

International observers castigated the trials and executions as not meeting international standards of fairness. This is no surprise, seeing as how Equatorial Guinea has one of the worst human rights records in the world.

According to Amnesty International, the four men weren’t even in the country at the time of the attack, having been exiled to Benin some years before. President Obiang’s agents abducted them from Benin in January 2010. Because of the “chilling speed” of the executions, none of the condemned had the opportunity to appeal the verdict and sentences or seek clemency, as Equatorial Guinea’s own law is supposed to provide.

José Abeso Nsue, Manuel Ndong Anseme, Alipio Ndong Asumu and Jacinto Michá Obiang (no apparent relation to his alleged target) were the only Equatorial Guineans known to have faced the death penalty that year.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Equatorial Guinea,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Notable for their Victims,Other Voices,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Sixteen Yugoslav partisans and one German soldier

7 comments August 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1941, this happened.

These sixteen blindfolded Yugoslav Partisans about to be shot at Smederevska Palanka were joined in death by one conscientious German soldier who refused to help carry out the massacre. (Or not. See comments.)

The Partisans were Tito’s Communist guerrilla movement against the Nazi occupation and while they were up against it at this early date, they would in due time wind up on the winning side and help birth the postwar government.

Their legacy remains in every European sports page as the namesake of the Belgrade sports association Partizan founded immediately after the war. It’s the umbrella entity for the frequent Serbian football and basketball champions as well as a variety of other sports. (Current world tennis no. 1 Novak Djokovic played for Partizan, for instance.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Serbia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1692: Martha Carrier, ferocious woman

8 comments August 19th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1692 was the third of four execution dates during the notorious Salem witch trials.

Five souls were dispatched at Gallows Hill this date. With the executioner’s due respect to John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and The Crucible main character John Proctor, we’re elated this date to focus on the only woman among them — Martha Carrier.

Carrier is the subject of the recent historical novel The Heretic’s Daughter by her tenth-generation descendant Kathleen Kent, whom we’re delighted to welcome for an interview on this anniversary.

How did you first learn of your connection to Martha Carrier, and how does your family feel about this link?

I was very fortunate to have heard stories of the colonial Carriers from the time I was a young child. My first memory of hearing about the Salem witch trials was when I was eight years old, visiting my maternal grandmother. She was the first one to tell me that my grandmother back nine generations, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in 1692. When I asked her if Martha was in fact a witch, my grandmother said, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.”

She, along with the rest of my family, had a great sense of pride over Martha’s courage in standing up to her accusers. She was one of the few people, out of the 150 New Englanders accused of practicing witchcraft, who not only refused to admit to being guilty, but also never accused anyone else of being a witch, which most people did to save themselves.

Your book tells the story of Martha Carrier from the perspective of her 10-year-old daughter. As an author, how did you approach the research, especially when it comes to Martha as an individual? Is that something you were able to source pretty strongly or did it require a lot of filling in the blanks?

The Heretic’s Daughter was my first novel, and it took five years of research and writing to complete it.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of historical information about the colonies during that time. The courts where the witch trials were conducted kept very meticulous records so I was able to gather a lot of facts regarding the magistrates and deponents, as well as the accused. There are so many wonderful fiction and non-fiction books alike that have been written about the Salem witch trials, but I wanted to write a very personal story about the Carrier family; how they lived day to day, how they survived disease, Indian raids, hostility from their neighbors, and ultimately the witch trials. I was able to weave in a lot of my family’s stories — the cow that gave golden milk, Andrew’s near death experience in the prison — that have been passed down through 10 generations.

When I first began working on the book, it was written from Martha’s point of view, but I decided it would make more compelling reading if the narrator was one of the Carrier children, Sarah, and it is through her eyes that we see the growing hysteria over witchcraft, and her struggle with Martha’s strong, unyielding character. This theme of mother-daughter conflict is central to the book’s development.

So, who was Martha Carrier and why did she become one of the people caught up in the Salem witch trials?

Martha Carrier had evidently long been resented by the community in Andover, where the Carrier family lived during the Salem witch trials, because of her forceful nature. She argued over boundary lines with several neighbors (which was a common occurrence amongst the settlers), telling one neighbor, “I will stick as close to you as bark on a tree.” (source: Salem witch trial deposition; see this document) She was also married to a man who had fought in the English Civil War, and was widely rumored to be one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. Martha fell outside of the Puritan ideal of what a woman was supposed to be and was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that when she was asked by her judges if she had ever seen the Devil, she responded by telling them that the only devils she had ever seen were the men sitting in judgment before her.


One of 20 granite benches commemorating the Salem witch trial victims at a memorial. (cc) image from Deaf RED Bear.

Her own children accused her of witchcraft. Are you descended through those kids as well? And do we know anything about how they later dealt with or rationalized that act?

My family is descended from Tom, Jr., and I learned the full genealogy at an early age from my grandparents. Four of Martha’s five children were arrested to compel her to admit to being guilty. Her two oldest sons were arrested first, and they were tortured until they agreed to testify against their mother. Tom and Sarah were then arrested — the real Sarah being only 7 years old at the time, and the second youngest child to be imprisoned during the trials — and they quickly admitted that they, too, were complicit in witchcraft.

During the research, I discovered how truly awful the conditions were in the Salem jail. Nearly half of the 150 people arrested from towns all over New England were under the age of 18. The surprising thing was not that people died, but that anyone survived at all. The four children were kept imprisoned for months after their mother was hanged and they were finally released in the fall of 1692. Within a few years, their father, Thomas, collected his children and grandchildren and moved to the wilds of Connecticut to start a new life.

How did she try to defend herself?

Martha Carrier was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that Cotton Mather, one of the most famous theologians of his day, named her the “Queen of Hell.”

This Rampant Hag, Martha Carrier, was the Person, of whom the Confessions of the Witches, and of her own Children among the rest, agreed, That the Devil had promised her, she should be Queen of Hell.

Mather

When she was confronted by the accusing girls, she turned to her judges and said, “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.”

By the time of her arrest, several women had already been sentenced to be hanged, and she knew that her refusal to confess would mean death. She never wavered in her testimony and never accused another person to save herself, even when her four children were arrested and two of her sons were tortured.

Do you feel like she’s an overlooked figure in this affair? She’s not, for instance, even a character in The Crucible.

Arthur Miller did extensive research for The Crucible, but he did make changes to the historical facts for fictional purposes: for example John Proctor was in his seventies during the trials; hardly the strapping figure played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film adaptation.

There were so many remarkable people and events during the trials that he had to choose selectively in order to illustrate his primary motivation in writing the play which was to shed light on the McCarthy era communist “witch” trials.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Martha Carrier, as did Cotton Mather, but her forceful character made her a difficult subject, especially when there were more motherly figures like Rebecca Nurse, or titillating young characters like Abigail Williams to explore.

At this distance of time, Martha Carrier must have a great many descendants. Are you in touch with other branches of the family?

Soon after publishing The Heretic’s Daughter, I started getting emails and letters from fellow descendents of Thomas and Martha Carrier telling me that they, too, had heard many of the stories that I had grown up with.

For the release of my second novel, The Wolves of Andover, about Thomas Carrier’s life, I decided it would be fun to invite some of these extended family members to Salem for a book launch. On November 5th, 2010, nearly 250 Carrier descendents, some of them flying in from as far away as Washington State, California and Arizona, came to Salem for a weekend of author talks, receptions and story swapping. A video on my web site captured some of the highlights from that remarkable weekend.

We came as strangers and left Salem as family.

Ultimately, what’s changed about you yourself from your literary encounter with this famous ancestor?

The Salem witch trials were a dark period in American history, but from researching those events I discovered that positive changes occurred over time in the judicial system, the penal system, and for religious tolerance. I am awe-struck by the courage and fortitude of the settlers who sacrificed so much for their children and grandchildren.

And I am especially proud of my heritage: that my 9x great-grandmother defended her principles and conscience, even in the face of death. An interviewer once asked if, having written the novel, I felt I was speaking for Martha Carrier, and I said that I felt she had been speaking for me. A ferocious woman indeed!

With your second book, The Wolves of Andover, you’ve written two about the Carrier family. What’s your next project?

Wolves is a prequel to Heretic, as it explores the life of Thomas Carrier during the English Civil War and his journey to the new world from London.

I am about halfway through my third novel, but this one is quite different from the first two. It takes place during reconstruction era Texas in 1870, and chronicles a particularly chaotic, violent time in Texas history.

There’s another fine interview with Kathleen Kent here. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mass Executions,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Torture,USA,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1634: Urbain Grandier, for the Loudon possessions

3 comments August 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1634, a Paris tribunal “declare[d] the said Urbain Grandier duly guilty of the crime of sorcery, evil spells, and the possession visited upon some Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudon and of other laywomen mentioned at the trial, together with other crimes resulting from the above. For redress of these, he has been condemned … to be taken to the Place of Saine-Croix of this said town, to be tied to a post on a pile of faggots that is to be built in the said Place. There his body is to be burned alive … and his ashes are to be scattered to the winds.”

The sentence was immediately enforced.

These Loudon possessions were a disgraceful carnival of simulated enspellment by the local Ursuline nuns engineered to destroy Grandier, a parish priest with a knack for acquiring enemies.

Alexandre Dumas, pere would write about Grandier in his Crimes Célèbres, and later in a stand-alone play. In Dumas’s rendering, Grandier arrived in Loudon as a handsome outsider, eloquent in the pulpit and doubly so in pursuit of a pretty girl,* as inexorable as Shylock in his victorious lawsuits against the local grandees.

Most recklessly of all, he made a foe of Cardinal Richelieu — snubbing him, opposing him politically, and (so it was alleged) authoring a scathing and anonymous lampoon of the Grey Eminence.

When Richelieu’s deputy came to town, the locals got the Ursuline nuns into their fits and got Grandier fast-tracked for hell.

The nuns put on a circus of frothing, profane, hip-thrusting demoniac possession accusing Grandier of bewitchment as they melodramatically underwent exorcism. (Fabulously attended, these public displays of possession and exorcism went on for several years after Grandier’s death as a perverse tourist attraction.)

Richelieu’s guy arranged to try Grandier in his own court (no appeal possible) and threatened to arrest for treason anyone who testified in his defense. In case that were insufficient advantage, a contract with Lucifer — a literal, signed document — was produced for the magistrates’ edification.


In fairness, this “contract” must have been a hell of a lot of fun to forge.

Heck, even nuns who tried to recant were turned away. Must be back under Lucifer’s influence!

Before proceeding to the stake, Grandier was subjected to one last “extraordinary” torture. His holy persecutors, “lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man” until the bone marrow leaked from his legs. Satan’s subcontractor suffered the blows without confessing or naming an accomplice.

In 1952, Aldous Huxley molded the horrible Grandier story into a non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Huxley’s take helped to popularize the tale — one that polemicists in the 17th century also recognized as an injustice — for the modern era of flesh minced by ideological madness.

From beginning to end, the trial proved a farce in which the condemnation of the accused was a foregone conclusion. By means of a series of trumped-up charges reinforced by an official philosophy and falsified theological dogmas, the resources of the state were mobilized to crush the offending individual. Huxley is not slow to point to the modern counterpart of such proceedings, notably in Fascist or Communist countries.

-Book review by S. van Dantzich, The Australian Quarterly, June 1954

Evidently, it struck a chord.

A 1971 cinematic adaptation of this book, The Devils, a captivating and sacrilegious tapestry of violent, sexual, and religious iconography, won critical praise and censor board bans, as well as an “X” rating in the United States. It’s hard to find, but worth the trouble.

Huxley’s book also formed the basis for an operatic interpretation, Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun)

* As we’ve seen, French priests making sexy time stood in danger from their game-less counterparts.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Notable Sleuthing,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,Torture,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors

4 comments August 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1510, the new king Henry VIII had his dad’s most hated tax collectors beheaded on Tower Hill.

Better days: Empson (on the left) and Dudley (on the right) pal around with Henry VII.

When Henry Tudor conquered Bosworth Field to emerge from the War of the Roses as King Henry VII, he brought the baggage of being the son of some Welsh squire.

His shaky legitimacy exposed the newborn Tudor dynasty to existential threats from every quarter; even putative allies proved liable to turn against him.

Henry consequently looked for every opportunity to centralize power away from institutions that could check or threaten him and into his own hands — nowhere more notoriously so than in the realm of taxation.* Aggressive tax collection would not only regenerate the crown’s blasted treasury; it would widen his own scope of action.

Whether Henry’s historical repute for cupidity is well-deserved is a topic beyond the scope of this site, but the fact that he does have such a reputation can be attributed in no small degree to this date’s featured players.

These two persons, being lawyers in science, and privy councillors in authority, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, turned law and justice into wormwood and rapine. … Neither did they, toward the end, observe so much as the half-face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convent them before themselves, and some others, at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and in controversies civil. Then did they also use to inthral and charge the subjects’ lands with tenure in capite, by finding false offices, and thereby to work upon them for wardships, liveries, premier seisin, and alienations … When men were outlawed in personal actions, they would not permit them to purchase their charters of pardon, except they paid great and intolerable sums; standing upon the strict point of law, which upon outlawries giveth forfeiture of goods; nay, contrary to all law and colour, they maintained the king ought to have the half of men’s lands and rents, during the space of full two years, for a pain in case of outlawry. They would also raffle with jurors, and enforce them to find as they would direct, and if they did not, convent [summon] them, imprison them, and fine them. These and many other courses, fitter to be buried than repeated, they had of preyig upon the people; both like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves; insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance.

Francis Bacon‘s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh

Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were two powerful parliamentarians of less than lordly stature who had been elevated to this bad-cop role for their loyalty and aptitude. There, they became lightning rods for public resentment. It’s a path that had once taken a French counterpart from the common stock to the robes of state to (once his patron monarch died) the scaffold. Empson and Dudley trod it exactly.

Even in Henry’s lifetime, his newly intrusive taxes risked fearful public reaction.

The pretender Perkin Warbeck knocked Henry for the “robberies, extortions, the daily pilling of the people by dismes [tithes], taskes [contributions], tallages [tolls], benevolences, and other unlawful impositions and grievous exactions” he imposed, “agreeable to the meanness of his birth.” Tax backlash helped generate at least some of Warbeck’s popular support.

By the twilight of Henry’s rule in the first decade of the 1500’s, he had mastered these threats and could take advantage of political tranquility to really focus on his accounting. And he’d figured out that by ratcheting up enforcement of already-existing levies, he could avoid the dangerous confrontations that might result from summoning Parliament to ask it for money. It’s from this period most of all that he gets his historical Ebenezer Scrooge image, and the tool he employed for it, the Council Learned in the Law, got its extreme unpopularity.

Henry died in April of 1509 at the age of 52, leaving his son Henry VIII an overflowing treasury and countless grievances against the tax collectors who made it happen.

As the Council Learned’s leading lights, Empson and Dudley — “the king’s long arms with which … he took what was his” — immediately became targets once their royal protector was in the ground. They were hailed before the greenhorn king and the Privy Council to justify themselves within days of Henry VII’s death.

Interestingly, because a royal pardon amnestied all crimes except “felony, murder, and treason,” the malfeasance of these two councilors — whose real offense was unimpeachable loyalty to the last sovereign — had to be exaggerated into rather fantastical charges of treason in order to satisfy petitioners against them while avoiding undue embarrassment for the late king or the other aides who had served him.

In the year or so he lay in the dungeon awaiting his fate, “a pson most ignorant, and being in wordlie vexacon and trowble, also wth the sorrowfull and bitter remembrance of death,” Edmund Dudley wrote a treatise on the right arrangement of a society dedicated to the young new master who held Dudley’s life in his hands. The Tree of Commonwealth can be read here.

Yale professor Keith Wrightson introduces an interesting lecture — “Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts” — with Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth social schema.

Remember both, since now each thrive,
on perquisite ill gotten,
Empson & Dudleys case survives,
when they’re hang’d, dead, & rotten;

-From an 18th century colonial Virginia ballad titled “Remonstrance”, comparing this date’s centuries-old executed to a contemporary politician (Richard Beale Davis, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1967))

Update: The History of England podcast covers these two blokes here.

* The phrase “Morton’s fork” comes from Henry’s extractive machinations. Named for his Lord Chancellor John Morton, the original dilemma was a “fork” the crown used to stick taxpayers: those living high on the hog were made to pay up, since they obviously had enough to spare … and those living modestly were also made to pay, since they perforce must have saved enough to spare.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Language,Lawyers,Nobility,Pelf,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Treason

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1851: Col. William Logan Crittenden, nephew of the Attorney General

6 comments August 16th, 2011 Headsman

“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.

This well-bred** Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.

Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish. (The detailed progress of the campaign is described here.)

He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.†

Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press,‡ assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.

I am commanded to finish writing at once.

Your nephew,
W.L. Crittenden

I will die like a man

(Some other affecting last letters from Crittenden’s party can be perused here.)

All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.

When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.

But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.

Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.

All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.

Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration …

Jefferson Davis (yes, that one)

* An alternative version has Crittenden declaring that Kentuckians kneel only to their God.

** According to this public domain book (pdf; it’s also on Google books) of the Lopez expedition, William Crittenden’s cousin George Bibb Crittenden — eventually a Confederate general — was among the Texan filibusters to survive the Black Bean Lottery.

William Crittenden’s brother Thomas Theodore Crittenden fought on the Union side of the Civil War, and became Governor of Missouri in 1881. He’s noteworthy for having issued the bounty on outlaw Jesse James that led to the latter’s assassination by Robert Ford.

† Family in the president’s cabinet was just no guarantee of preferential treatment, abroad or at home; just a few years before, a son of the sitting Secretary of War had been hanged at sea for mutiny.

‡ The Spanish press likewise excoriated American yellow journalism in terms that no few present-day scribes would also deserve.

New Orleans papers, there is your work! There is the result of your diragations, of your iniquitous falsehoods, of your placards with large black letters, and your detestable extras … This blood must flow, drop by drop, upon your heads — this blood will torment you in your sleep, for they have lost their lives when you were in security in your houses.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Terrorists,USA

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2010: Two Afghan adulterers stoned

5 comments August 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date last year, the Taliban carried out the public stoning of an adulterous couple who had attempted to elope in northern Afghanistan.

“Even family members were involved,” the New York Times reported, “both in the stoning and in tricking the couple into returning after they had fled.”

as a Taliban mullah prepared to read the judgment of a religious court, the lovers, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, defiantly confessed in public to their relationship. “They said, ‘We love each other no matter what happens,'” [local farmer Nadir] Khan said.

The executions were the latest in a series of cases where the Taliban have imposed their harsh version of Shariah law for social crimes, reminiscent of their behavior during their decade of ruling the country. In recent years, Taliban officials have sought to play down their bloody punishments of the past, as they concentrated on building up popular support.

“We see it as a sign of a new confidence on the part of the Taliban in the application of their rules, like they did in the ’90s,” said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We do see it as a trend. They’re showing more strength in recent months, not just in attacks, but including their own way of implementing laws, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings.”

Apparent cell phone video of the execution later surfaced.

Warning: Mature Content. It’s two filmed stonings, after all.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Afghanistan,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Known But To God,Mature Content,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Sex,Stoned,Summary Executions,Women

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1949: Husni al-Za’im, Syrian president

3 comments August 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Syrian President Husni al-Za’im and his Prime Minister Mohsen Berazi were seized in a military coup, conducted to a court martial, and immediately put to death.

An ethnic Kurd, al-Za’im had cut his teeth in the armed forces of two different empires — the Ottoman and the French — before Syria attained independence following World War II.

The ambitious al-Za’im had got out from under a Vichy-era prison sentence for corruption and established himself as army chief of staff in time for the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Syrian forces’ underwhelming performance in this campaign set the stage for what would follow — both for al-Za’im and, arguably, down to the present day.

Syria actually sported an open and democratic polity; it had a successful election in 1947. But the civilian leaders were essentially wealthy landowners who, having successfully led the movement for independence, had scant agenda for actual governance save enriching themselves and their allies. It was “an edifice of nepotism and mismanagement … [a] creaking network of family patronage and administrative venality.”

A stagnant economy, kleptocratic elite, and political malaise came into sharp focus with the debacle of the Arab-Israeli War. Arab commander Fawzi al-Qawuqji would charge that feckless Arab elites ran the war “from behind their office desks, and in accordance with their own personal interests, ambitions, and whims.”

Encouraged by the United States — just then breaking into the growth industry of short-sighted oil patch coups — al-Za’im overthrew the civilian government to “put things right and restore this nation its honour, its dignity and its freedom.”

This undergraduate thesis makes a case for the Za’im coup as the turning point normalizing and privileging military intervention in Syrian politics. This was the fear of a young American diplomat in Syria, who reckoned American support for the coup “the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in … we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”

So it was that on this date the next domino toppled, a counter-coup that ended al-Za’im’s installment of the dictatorship series most abruptly.

Colonel Sami Hinnawi, an officer who had served under Husni Zaim, then sat as president of a “higher war council” of 12 senior officers, which tried the President and Prime Minister and condemned them to death. Sentence was carried out at once at the Mezza fortress near Damascus. Mohsen Berazi was shot first. He protested, although Husni Zaim, who stood by waiting his turn, urged him to be quiet.

London Times, Aug. 15, 1949

Hinnawi last another year before a relative of Mohsen Berazi assassinated him in revenge, and on it went. It was during Syria’s sequence of unstable military juntas in the 1950s that the young Hafez al-Assad earned his stripes in the Syrian air force.

Assad would eventually execute a much more permanent takeover, rule the country for 30 years, and upon his death in 2000, bequeath leadership to his son Bashar — a fellow who, as of this writing, stands in some danger of winning an entry of his own in these pages should his ruthless crackdown against pro-democracy protesters prove unavailing.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Syria,Treason

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1915: George Joseph Smith, Brides in the Bath murderer

7 comments August 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1915, serial uxoricide George Joseph Smith was hung by the capable John Ellis at Maidstone Prison in the UK.

Smith had committed three murders and various forms of larceny as well; he’d earned his noose several times over.

Two things tend to trip people up when they’ve seemingly committed the perfect crime: either they brag about it to impress others, or they repeat the crime using the same methodology as before, since it worked so well the first time. Either of those actions greatly increases the risk of the criminal’s getting caught.

Smith made the latter mistake. He was in a sense a victim of his own success.

Smith was born on January 11, 1872. His criminal record began when he was sent to a reformatory at nine and served a seven-year sentence. In young adulthood he was in and out of prison on theft- and fraud-related convictions.

His complicated marital career began when he married Caroline Beatrice Thornhill, a domestic servant, in 1898. Smith persuaded her to steal from her employers. Caroline served time in prison as a result, and implicated her husband, who got two years for his role in the thefts.

After George Smith’s release, Caroline thought it wise to put a few thousand miles between herself and her estranged husband, and so she left the UK for Canada. She never filed for divorce, however.

Smith remained legally married to her for the rest of his life, so none of his numerous other marriages were legal.

Unlawfully Wedded …

The guy wasn’t good-looking, but he could charm like any good con artist. A year after his marriage to Caroline, Smith bigamously married another woman. He cleaned out her saving account and then deserted her.

Between 1908 and 1914, he married no fewer than seven additional women, usually under an alias, and deserted most of them after a short time, sometimes only a matter of days — but not before he helped himself to their possessions and bank accounts.

As true crime writer Harold Schechter tells it in his book The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers:

Smith initially limited himself to scamming gullible spinsters out of their life savings by luring them into bigamous marriages … The moment Smith had his hands on his new bride’s money, he would disappear. Usually telling her he was going out on an errand — to pick up a newspaper or buy a pack of cigarettes — he would never return. On one occasion, he brought his newlywed wife to the National Gallery of Art and, after viewing some paintings, excused himself to go to the bathroom. She never saw him — or her life savings — again.

That particular bride was named Sarah Faulkner. Smith had already plundered £350 in cash from her and her jewelry as well, and while she was waiting for him to return from the loo he was back at their hotel, swiping her clothing and the rest of her money.

The only wife that didn’t fit this pattern was Edith Pegler.

Smith was away from her side for months at a time on “business trips” and when he returned it was always to ask for money, but he never left her for good and they remained together for seven years. As to whether he actually harbored some form of affection for her or whether he just didn’t want to kill his cash cow while it was still milkable, we can only speculate.

Yet all these women were, in a sense, lucky.

Smith may have broken their hearts and taken their cash, but he left them their lives.

… ‘Til Death Do Us Part

The first unlucky wife was Bessie Mundy, whom Smith murdered on July 13, 1912.

They’d married in August 1910, but he left her after persuading her to give him £150 in cash. On the way out the door, he accused her of giving him a venereal disease.

Eighteen months later, Bessie ran into Smith on the street. Somehow, the charmer got his ex to forgive him and resume their relationship.

In fact, Smith wanted to get his hands on Bessie’s £2,500 inheritance, but it was in trust and he couldn’t touch it.

After their reunion, the couple drew up mutual wills, naming each other as beneficiaries. Bessie willed her husband £2,579. Less than a week later, she was mysteriously dead.

Smith rented a house for them in Herne Bay and had a new cast-iron bathtub installed. Tragically, Bessie drowned in the bath. Her husband said he’d been out buying dinner and returned to discover the body.

Since Smith claimed his bride suffered from epilepsy and that she’d had a seizure the day before she died, it was easy to believe she’d simply had an unfortunate accident.

In spite of his newfound wealth, Smith had Bessie consigned to a pauper’s grave and even returned the slightly-used bathtub to the ironmonger for a £1 17s. refund.

This, perhaps, is where Smith might have counted himself lucky and checked out of the homicide business — or at least thought about a different m.o. Instead, hubris and habit got him hanged.

The Brides of Bath murder victims: from left to right, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty.

Next to go was Alice Burnham, who was making a goodly living as a nurse. Smith married on November 4, 1913, and became her widower on December 13.

Alice and her new husband were honeymooning at a seaside boardinghouse in Blackpool when she drowned in the bathtub while he was supposedly out getting eggs.

Smith, who claimed she had a weak heart, had insured her life for £500. She too was buried on the cheap.

Margaret Elizabeth Lofty died in her London home a little over a year later, on December 18, 1914. Newspapers reported she had drowned in the bathtub while her husband — identified as Robert Lloyd — was out buying tomatoes. He and the landlady found the body. Lofty and “Lloyd” had married only the day before and, appropriately enough, the ceremony was performed in the city of Bath.

Although it was initially classified as death by misadventure, Margaret’s murder ultimately lead to Smith’s downfall.

Rotten luck, it was: Alice Burnham’s father read an account of her death in the newspaper and, even though the husband had a different name, he couldn’t help but notice that Margaret’s death was suspiciously similar to his daughter’s.

Joseph Crossley, who was the couple’s landlord at the time of Alice’s death, noticed the same thing. Since both the Burnhams and Crossleys had taken a dislike to Smith from the get-go, they both wrote the police, asking them to open an investigation.

Authorities quickly determined that George Joseph Smith and Robert Lloyd were the same man. They sure had the same playbook.

Margaret had made out a will just hours before she died, naming her husband the sole heir to her estate. She had also withdrawn her life savings from the bank the same day, and three days before she had taken out a £700 life insurance policy on herself, with her husband as the beneficiary. Ka-ching.

When the grieving widower showed up at the insurance office to collect on Margaret’s policy, he was arrested. Lloyd/Smith was initially charged with putting a false name on a marriage certificate, but bigamy and murder charges would follow fast.

When news of the arrest was published, a police chief from Kent read the story and told the London police about Bessie Mundy’s death, which was strikingly similar to the other two.

Forever Hold Your Peace

But how could he could have drowned the women in the tub, without leaving marks of violence on their body?

Margaret had only a small bruise on her elbow. For answers, the police turned to renowned pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. The first thing he did was exhume the bodies to determine whether the women had, in fact, drowned. They had.

After experimenting with the very same bathtub Margaret Lofty died in, he determined how it might have happened. John Brophy, a crime writer, describes it chillingly:

With honeymoon playfulness he would enter the room where his bride was already in the bath, admire her naked beauty, bend over her fondly, and, still murmuring endearments, hold her feet. Suddenly, he would tug her feet upward, jerking her head at the end of the bath, below the water, so that in a few moments she would be drowned with no bruises on the body or other signs of assault or resistance.

Effective. Actually, you can see why he stuck to his system.

When Smith went to trial, it was only for the murder of Bessie; British law didn’t permit him to be tried for multiple murders in one go. However, the prosecution wanted to bring evidence in the Lofty and Burham deaths into the trial, arguing that they indicated a criminal “system.”

The judge allowed it, setting a precedent that would be used in later criminal cases.

In pretrial investigations later described in court, Spilsbury demonstrated his murder theory using Bessie’s bathtub and a female police officer in a bathing suit. It worked all too well: she lost consciousness immediately and they had to drag her out of the tub and perform artificial respiration to revive her.

No wonder the jury was only out for twenty-two minutes before it delivered a guilty verdict.

Caroline Thornhill, Smith’s legal wife, returned to Britain for his trial. She married a Canadian soldier the day after his execution.

The “Brides in the Bath” case has remained vividly alive in British memory.

The historian Harold Nicholson compared Smith’s behavior to Adolf Hitler’s in his 1939 book, Why Britain is at War; Smith was mentioned in novels by Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and in 1952 the case was made into an episode for the true-crime radio show The Black Museum.

[audio:http://www.archive.org/download/OTRR_Black_Museum_Singles/BlackMuseum-03-TheBathTub.mp3]

More recently, in 2003 the murders were featured into made-for-TV movie called The Brides in the Bath.

Warning: Video contains NSFW naked ladyparts. Oh, and homicide.

At least two plays, Tryst and The Drowning Girls, are based on the story. In 2010, the author Jane Robins published a book about the case, called The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Pelf,Popular Culture,Serial Killers,Theft

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