Archive for September, 2011

2006: Clarence Hill, former last-minute reprieve beneficiary

2 comments September 20th, 2011 Headsman

Core to the experience of capital punishment is the dramatic last-minute reprieve.

As drama, you can’t do a lot better than a last passport to life delivered seconds ahead of the reaper. Or even seconds after! We’ve seen in these pages the paper of record bemoaning the the very prospect of a late stay as a “refinement of cruelty,” but something tells us that neither party to the transaction will opt to forego it.

This date in 2006 offers the anniversary of the (un-stayed) execution of a man who was making his second visit to the gurney — courtesy of one of those last-gasp reprieves eight months before.

Clarence Hill had murdered a police officer during a botched 1982 bank robbery in Pensacola, Fla.

And when it was time to go, Hill had the rare benefit of experience.

He’d already been all strapped down on January 24 of that same year, with the IV hooked up and ready for someone to drop the plunger, when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy issued the last-secondest of last second stays.

The purpose of that stay was to allow Hill to pursue an (ultimately unavailing) suit against the constitutionality of Florida’s lethal injection procedures.

Though Hill got no legal traction — literally, the courts declined to act on Hill’s petitions, and then the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against taking any further action — the whole situation foreshadowed the juridical and procedural dog’s breakfast that lethal injection has become five years hence.

Twelve weeks after Hill’s (“successful”) lethal injection, the Sunshine State badly botched the lethal injection of another man, leading to a yearlong hiatus in American executions while the courts attempted to sort out that lethal injection stuff for real.

It’s doubtful even at this point whether they ever really have.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1902: Fred Hardy, the first hanged in Alaska

5 comments September 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1902, a hanging in Alaska capped a gold rush story fit for Jack London.


“A leetle favor … I gif my husky-dog, Diable, to de devil. De leetle favor? Firs’ you hang heem, an’ den you hang me.” Illustration from Jack London’s short story “Diable” (or “Batard”).

Actually, this tale is set not in London’s characteristic Klondike gold rush, but a subsequent one centered on remote Nome. There, in the words of the Rex Beach novel The Spoilers, “a frenzied horde of gold-seekers paused in their rush to the new El Dorado. They had come like a locust cloud, thousands strong, settling on the edge of the Smoky Sea, waiting the going of the ice that barred them from their Golden Fleece — from Nome the new, where men found fortune in a night.”

(The Spoilers is available free online in both text and audio book forms. The clip above is from a 1914 cinematic adaptation.)

The victims in this case of mercenary arctic brutality were a party of four who set up prospecting camp on Unimak Island, in the Aleutians. Their impression that they were safely alone on this large territory was refuted with the inexorable cruelty of a slasher flick.

After being caught out by the elements in a secondary camp, the party returned to its unsecured main base to discover “that their tent had been torn down in their absence and their stores taken away.”

Here the ominous overture fades in, and by the time it hits crescendo the mysterious robbers will have visited a cold-blooded massacre on our quartet of prospectors.

“Suddenly a man, who had been hid by the tall coarse grass, jumped up several hundred yards away, and took aim with a rifle at Florence. He fired and Florence fell with a scream. ‘Con’ and I ran for the boat, jumped in, and Rooney started to shove her off. The next moment a shot came from somewhere in the cliff above our heads.

“Rooney grabbed hold of his right knee, cried ‘They’ve got me too,’ and sank into the surf. Con and I saw that there was no use trying to get away in the boat, and so took it on the run for the shelter of the cliffs. We hadn’t gone twenty steps when another shot rang out; Con threw up his hands and fell headlong upon the beach, stone dead, with a shot between the shoulders. I kept on running, hearing shot after shot fired at me and striking about me with dull thumps like pieces of heavy hail.”

That’s from the riveting account of the lone survivor, one Jackson, who managed to escape into the island’s interior and after tramping about for two weeks, near to starvation and in continual terror of his stalkers, was finally found at death’s door by a friendly hunter.

Jackson’s information was able to tip off an investigation that led to the capture of two suspects. By the time Fred Hardy and George Aston were nabbed, they had “taken possession of” a fishing village and “kept [the fishers] in a terrified state.” They also happened to have the late prospectors’ booty, including personal items like an inscribed watch.

Aston wisely turned on his confederate, saving his own neck at the cost of stretching Hardy’s.

Hardy, a veteran of America’s colonial adventure in the Philippines and a nephew (so he said) of department store magnate John Wanamaker, denied guilt all the way to the scaffold but got no help from appellate courts or from President Teddy Roosevelt. (Since Alaska was still a territory, executive clemency was up to the White House.) He was put to death “in an addition built to the ice-house on the lot opposite the jail” (according to Washington state’s Morning Olympian, Oct. 3, 1902) at Nome City itself.

It wasn’t actually the first execution in Alaska, or even American-run Alaska, but Hardy’s hanging was a significant milestone. Prior to 1900, the vast territory was next door to lawless, order enforced in the interior by miner’s meetings or not at all, while a smattering of coastal military and customs outposts projected vague federal authority. Data on executions from this period is sketchy and incomplete.

In 1900, with the Alaskan population booming from that locust cloud of gold-hunters, promulgation of a civil code set Alaska on the way to something resembling normal government. Hardy’s execution was the first under legal judicial authority — the first of eight in the first half of the 20th century. Alaska abolished capital punishment shortly before attaining statehood in 1959.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1755: Mark and Phillis, a landmark

1 comment September 18th, 2011 Headsman

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officers.”

-Paul Revere‘s account of his midnight ride

This useful landmark* so nearly catastrophic for the cause of American liberty had been supplied this date in 1755 by the fruit of American liberty’s original sin: slavery.

“Mark” was a Massachusetts slave who, for the crime of offing his master Captain John Codman — “willfully felloniously and Traiterously put a Deadly Poison called Arsenick into a Vial of Water” because Captain John had separated Mark from his family — was entombed in colonial cartography by means of hanging, tarring, and gibbeting in an iron cage.

This exceptional sentence was mirrored by the rare-for-North-America fate of burning alive meted out to Mark’s fellow-slave and co-conspirator, Phillis.

They were adjudged to have committed not merely murder, but that archaic offense of petty treason — betraying not their sovereign but their natural superior.

Besides Mark’s becoming a literal landmark, theirs was a landmark case: Mark and Phillis were the only people ever convicted (pdf) for petit treason in Massachusetts.

The records of this trial are preserved in a public domain volume available from Google books; we’re particularly drawn to a tangential mention in this tome of a British governor‘s defense of capital punishment as a specifically oligarchical strategy: “Whilst the people of this country lived from hand to mouth, and had very little wealth … capital punishment might in a great measure be avoided; but when by the acquisition, diffusion, and general intercourse of wealth, the temptations to fraud are abundantly increased, the terrors of it must be also proportionably enlarged; otherwise if, through a false tenderness for wicked men, the laws should not be sufficient to protect the property of the honest and industrious …”

borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

-Longfellow, who doesn’t mention Mark

* A nicely tarred corpse will really keep for you: one colonial doctor observing this gibbet in years past had noted that Mark’s “skin was but little broken altho’ he had been hanging there near three or four years.” This is the kind of Founding Fathers’ wisdom that latter-day America has so sadly turned its back on.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1912: Bertram Spencer

1 comment September 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1912, a prolific Springfield thief died in the electric chair.


No, not Snake.

This fellow was Bertram G. Spencer, whose Boston Brahmin name belied a deceptively modest station.

A brakeman by day, Spencer lived a double life as Massacusetts’ boldest burglar in the evenings, when he would raid homes around Springfield at times when he was likely to be caught. (Hey, he did have a day job.) He frequently was intercepted, but for two years nobody ever got the drop on him and the numerous conversations he had with his victims were not enough to crack the case.

This villain comes up short of positively Moriartyesque by virtue of his amateurish chops in acquisition; one of the mystery burglar’s noted characteristics was the frequency with which he passed over the most valuable booty in the house in favor of some inconsequential bauble.

With his penchant for brandishing a weapon at the folks he bumped into, it was only a matter of time before somebody died for one of those inconsequential baubles. On March 31, 1910, schoolteacher Martha A. Blackstone became that somebody when in a panicking reaction to Spencer’s home invasion she failed to pipe down and let him rob — and he shot her dead.

Forensics then languishing in a primitive state, Spencer kept getting away with his larcenous (and then murderous) spree with little more than the expedient of wearing a kerchief and hat to hide his face. How were they ever going to find the guy — unless he did something ridiculous like drop a monogrammed locket on the scene?

Wait. No way. You cannot be serious.


Period
postcard shows images connected to the Spencer crimes centered around the “B.G.S.” locket he dropped at one site, leading to his detection. Just to really make sure he hung himself, the locket contained pictures of his mother and sister.

Upon arrest, police tossed his home and discovered (quoth the New York Times) “black masks, slouch hats,” and “a big revolver, fully loaded” under his pillow. No word on whether he was twirling his mustache, too.

Where the relieved well-to-do of Springfield perhaps saw only a somewhat preposterous villain — inspired, according to the Springfield Republican, by “a daredevil bravado, a love of the spectacular and a lack of pecuniary calculation which strongly suggested either the monomania of an unbalanced mind or a romantic vanity fed on by penny dreadfuls” — other practitioners in the emerging field of psychiatry saw a systemic breakdown.

Indeed, Spencer became the topic of an open tug-of-war over handling defendants with putative mental disorders in the criminal justice system. The district attorney at the time had Spencer committed without trial, and his doing so — rather than contesting Spencer’s sanity in court — contributed to his loss at the polls in 1910. (The new guy, in his remarks on the case, reclassified Spencer from “insane” to the more prosecutable “moral imbecile.”)

If the public was certain enough about Bertram Spencer’s sanity to elect a guy just to try him, it will come as no surprise that the testimony about Spencer’s abusive childhood and manic-depression cut no ice with a jury of his peers.

While our burglar went to his juridical death (last words: “good night”), a Massachusetts psychologist named Lloyd Vernon Briggs took up the man (alongside more luminous criminals like presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz) as one of his case studies for a 1914 book, The Manner of Man That Kills. A lengthy pdf of the Spencer material — it’s all public domain — is available here.

Briggs viewed mentally disordered prisoners as people who were ill-served by the criminal justice system: more than that, as instances where a society failed itself by failing to recognize potentially criminal mental illness before it metastasized into actual crime, and the adversarial judiciary as a factor in that dysfunction.

Dr. L. Vernon Briggs … made it his goal to end the courtroom spectacle of dueling psychiatrists. …

Briggs was an indefatigable advocate of the psychological links between mental illness and murder. He believed that mental illness and moral degradation were the root causes of crime and violence. … Briggs insisted that the “real offender is society and not the children in the form of men, not the mentally diseased” who commit violent crime.

When mentally ill people landed in court, Briggs believed that the law’s adversary procedures undermined scientific truth and the legal protection provided a defendant. He wanted to bridge the gulf between law and psychiatry by intervening in the process before a mentally ill defendant appeared in court. He was especially critical of the “spectacle in our courts of two or more physicians pitted against one another, testifying to diametrically opposite opinions as to the mental condition and responsibility” of the defendant. Such a procedure, he said, not only humiliates the mentally ill defendant but increases the likelihood that a mentally ill capital defendant will be sentenced to death and executed … Briggs lobbied the public and the legislature for a law that required all capital defendants to undergo a psychiatric examination by neutral experts as son as they were taken into police custody.

Briggs was appalled [at Spencer’s case]. He contended that all of the psychiatrists who examined Spencer knew he was insane at the time of the murder and at the trial. Some thought he was medically insane but not legally insane. Briggs denounced the distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity as without a difference. The awful result of the confusion between psychhiatry and the law was the unnecessary execution of an insane person. “The whole legal machinery of the State,” he wrote angrily, “had been put in motin to crush this defective and uphold the Majesty ofthe Law and so it came about that Bertram G. Spencer, a defective from birth, with the mind of a child, was tried for his life and sentenced to death and executed with a smile upon his lips.”

-From Alan Rogers, Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1938: Albert Dyer, sex killer (presumably)

2 comments September 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Albert Dyer hanged at California’s San Quentin prison for a triple rape-murder.

Dyer is a very modern bugbear, a monster right out of cable news and amber alerts and stranger danger.

As often with those, his path to infamy began with disappeared white girls — Jeanette Stephens, Melba Everett, and Madeline Everett, all ages 7 to 9 — who went to picnic at an Inglewood park one summer afternoon and never came home.

The police set about hunting for any known sex offenders in the area, but the offense would ultimately be attributed to a neighbor who was active with the concerned search parties that scoured the area.

Induced by a police threat to deliver him into the hands of a lynch mob, Dyer admitted to having lured the girls off on the pretext of catching rabbits, then strangling them to death and raping their corpses.

(Here’s a disturbing set of photos of the girls’ bodies.)

Dyer attempted to repudiate these confessions, which you’d have to say were obtained under a bit of duress. The case against him apart from self-incrimination was a tissue of meager circumstantial evidence; Dyer’s persona smacks of mental deficiency that might have left him easy prey for manipulation by his captors.

Newspapers described Dyer as “dull” and “stupid”, and in fact the defense attempted to cast doubt on the prisoner’s mental competence and the reliability of his confessions. The jury took agonizing days to reach a consensus, and the last man holding out against conviction would later say that he finally gave in after being led to believe that the judge considered Dyer guilty. (This revelation was among the defense’s last arguments for executive clemency, at the end of the process.)

In short, for all the horror of the crime, the case was not cut and dried in 1938. The passage of time — with our latter-day awareness of false confessions and developmental disability — will hardly make it more so, unless some forgotten crime locker still preserves a testable genetic sample. But no surprise, the popular press had a different take. The Los Angeles Times editorialized (Aug. 27, 1937) anticipating that

[t]he verdict of a jury that Albert Dyer must die for the murder of three Inglewood children is a long step toward the eradication of sex crime in California. It is the only outcome of the case that public opinion could afford to sanction.

The evidence against Dyer was overwhelming; and there could be no mitigating circumstance which could justify this State in letting such a miscreant go on living.

Even if Dyer is mentally defective, there is no reason for his continued existence. He could never be safe to have at large. Legally, his condition is not insanity; he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong. Eradication of such types is necessary for public safety.

And the death penalty is the best deterrent. If others have this criminal tendency, his fate may cause them to repress it. Dyer, hanged, may save the lives of countless California innocents. In any scale, the safety of children must weigh more heavily than his forfeited right to live.

Dyer was the second-last person hanged by the Golden State before the gas chamber came online to replace the gallows. His legacy was California’s 1939 passage of a law governing (pdf) the handling of “Sexual Psychopaths”. (This site suggests he was also posthumously exploited for the cause of marijuana criminalization.)

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1922: Eugene Weeks, by Sheriff Robb

2 comments September 15th, 2011 Headsman

“Minister-Sheriff Hangs Iowa Murderer, Resigning Des Moines Pastorate to Do So” read the New York Times headline for the execution this date of Eugene Weeks.

Our interest here is not drawn by Weeks, who hanged for the forgettable murder of a grocer, but by his executioner, a truly American character running a truly American grift.

Winfred E. Robb parlayed decorated service as a World War I chaplain into a postwar book paying sentimental martial tribute to “young men … [and] their glorious death” the better to inspire “a greater patriotism and the dedication of himself to the common good of his fellows.”

Robb had returned from the European theater to his prewar gig as pastor of Des Moines independent evangelical congregation, the First Federated Church. (It still exists, nearing its centennial in the guise of a megachurch preaching “triumphalist, Americanized Christianity”.)

Our pastor proved amenable to exchanging this ministry of God for that of a more temporal power, and was elected Sheriff of Polk County in 1920 on an anti-corruption platform. The New York Times reported that his “campaign pledges of ‘cleaning up’ Des Moines have been followed by vigorous efforts against bootleggers and disorderly places.”

Among these edifying duties was another that some of his congregation found less tasteful: while Iowa had centralized its hangings at the penitentiary in Fort Madison, each execution remained the responsibility of the local sheriff in the county which sent the man to death row. That meant Pastor Robb.

Evidently some members of Robb’s congregation objected to this office, but where theology (potentially) clashed with politics, our man was prepared to render unto Caesar.

After all, in America, who knows how high a hangman might rise?

A co-conspirator of Weeks was executed on the same scaffold a few weeks later, and by the same Sheriff Robb. Robb’s self-satisfied justification for conducting these hangings could come straight from Rick Perry campaign literature.

Brainless people who have no ability to think … will condemn and rave and shout as usual. Unthinking religious fanatics will plead and pray and forget that God is a God of justice and mercy, and that judgment is as much a duty of love as mercy is the delight of love.

America is cursed today with a lot of spineless reformers. They think of a minister as a sissy, sexless, spineless creature with lily white hands who spends his time attending ladies’ societies and pink teas.

Tough love, baby. This was an apostle of muscular Christianity.

So Weeks resigned his ministerial commission, and on this date he skipped the ladies’ societies and put Eugene Weeks to death for murder.

By the end of the year, our hammer of the Lord had found himself on the anvil side of the law, and maybe rethinking those duties of love. Prohibition was Sheriff Robb’s milieu and the cause of his fall, as told by this Associated Press wire story printed in the New Year’s Eve Miami Herald:

IOWA PARSON-SHERIFF HELD FOR BOOTLEGGING

Jailer, Whose Sons He Arrested, Accuses Preacher Who Presided at Hanging.

DES MOINES, Ia., Dec. 30. — Sheriff Robb, Polk county’s preacher-sheriff, who gained nation-wide prominence last fall through officiating at the hanging of two murderers at Fort Madison penitentiary, was arrested here today charged with unlawfully disposing of liquors as the sensational backfire action on the part of his jailer, William McMurray, whose own sons had been arrested by the sheriff for alleged complicity in the theft of $30,000 worth of bonded whiskey from the county jail Wednesday night. The sheriff’s bond was fixed at $1,000 which he furnished and the hearing set for January 3.

John Robb, brother of the sheriff, and himself a minister, who has been acting as a deputy for his brother, also was arrested charged with larceny, on information sworn out by Jailer McMurray and released on $500 bond. Neither charge was made in connection with the theft of the 47 cases from the jail Wednesday night.

Later additional charges were filed against Sheriff Robb by McMurray which alleged the sheriff had illegally sold cider presses and other paraphernalia used in making liquors, which had been seized in raids.

Charges that Sheriff Robb personally sold 35 quarts and 75 pints of whiskey to L.S. Hill, president of the American Lithographing company, a month ago, and has given away and sold seized liquors to other persons, furnished the basis for the charges which McMurray filed. Mr. Hill denied he bought liquor from the sheriff.

Greater patriotism hath no man than this, than to peddle seized drug contraband to local oligarchs under guise of law enforcement. At least you could never accuse the guy of keeping those hands lily-white.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1894: Enoch Davis, like a cur

2 comments September 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Enoch Davis — condemned for the fatally pistol-whipping his wife, who was planning to leave him (you’ll see why in a moment) — was shot to death at Lehi Junction, Utah.

We have some affection in these pages for men or women who do not “play the man” (or woman) at the end but die in piteously naked humanity.

Given that we bear no brief for the man’s eternal soul, it seems in these parts as if bursting with rage is no less legitimate a way than any other to shuffle off this mortal coil: surely, it is better spectacle than many. “The most despicable mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate,” reported Salt Lake’s Daily Tribune, “could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, decency-sickening state than was Enoch Davis’ last hour.”

Davis got started well before the last hour; according to this review of Utah’s notable executions, he kicked off execution day by asking his jailers if he could enjoy one last … prostitute.

Maybe that would have chilled him out a little.

Instead, the Salt Lake Herald reporter recounted (under a scandalized headline) that “for vileness, filth, obscenity, indecency, billingsgate and profanity, no man, standing on the threshold of eternity’s ante-room, ever equaled Davis, barring Ruloff who was hung in Binghampton [sic], New York, in 1872 [sic].”

By turns cursing, resisting, demanding (he had better luck with his demand for whisky), and cursing some more — the Herald report is full of blushing bowdlerizations of Davis’s dirty stories and blasphemous digressions. Solicited of his last remarks, “[t]he subsequent dialogue was of such a disconnected character that reproduction is impossible. First, because it was too filthy; second, the same. And so on ad infinitum.”

Now those are last words we can all enjoy.

Beyond the newsmen, and about 500 residents of Provo, Lehi, and environs who assembled for the show, the audience included the six anonymous members of the firing squad. In order to secret their identity, they had been carried to the site in the dead of night and situated in a tent: they would not emerge until the following nightfall.

Holes cut in the canvas provided their firing positions on Davis, staked out in a bar seat that was (for obvious reasons, but also because Davis was by that point too drunk to sit straight) as securely nailed down as the officiants could manage.

Davis objected to everything else, and of course he objected to this too. “Let me see ‘em! Let me see them men who are going to kill me!” the doomed man carped, not wanting to “die like an Indian.” Odd phrase, but he was a little stressed out.

The sharpshooters demurred.

The demurrers shot sharp.

That part, at least, went off without a hitch. Like an Indian, like a cur, or merely like a weak and wicked villain, Davis succumbed instantly to the volley.

His own cowardly tears fell through the foulest of breaths during his last hour, his complete lack of nerve … might have won him a little human sympathy if it were not for his vile and lying tongue.

-Salt Lake Tribune, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions


This illustration (and the sketch of Davis above) both from the September 15, 1894 Salt Lake Herald.

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1916: Mary the Elephant

11 comments September 13th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1916 — true story — this happened.

The circus elephant Mary hanged Sep. 13, 1913 in Erwin, Tennessee

Five-ton circus elephant Mary (yes, she has her own Wikipedia page) was in Kingsport, Tennessee on the chintzy fairgrounds touring circuit with Sparks World Famous Circus.

Billed as as “The Largest Living Land Animal on Earth,”* this exotic creature was a prime draw for the circus — and also a beloved pet of the Sparks family.

Unfortunately, this valuable asset was placed in the temporary stewardship of an inexperienced “under keeper” whom the circus had had to scoop up at a recent stop to cover staff turnover. Between shows on September 12, that fellow somehow (accounts conflict) enraged Mary, and (again according to one version among several) she

“collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [the under keeper’s] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground … and with the full force of her biestly [sic] fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden … swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.”

It’s apparent in this report that the facts of an already-sensational event almost instantly began disappearing into its spectacle. See the largest land animal on earth! See it maul its handler to death! But what happened next lifted Mary all the way to legend.

The owners knew they had to euthanize the “mankiller,” or if they didn’t know they were soon persuaded by mushrooming press attention and towns threatening to ban the Sparks circus.

But how? They couldn’t shoot Mary to death — she apparently survived gunshots from the vengeful crowd in the immediate aftermath of the trampling; firearms just didn’t pack the wallop to put down a pachyderm in 1916. The area didn’t have the sort of electrical juice available that Thomas Edison had once used to drop a circus elephant during his weird campaign for the electric chair.

The choice for the baleful logistical task of killing a 10,000-pound evildoer was hanging, selected over “crushing it between railroad cars.”

And for stringing up “Murderous Mary”, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you’re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose.


The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the “executioner” who worked the controls, according toThe Day They Hung the Elephant.

The railroad was game for the operation, provided the circus would come to it. So on this date, the circus train cars loaded up for the nearest usable train derrickscaffold at Erwin, Tennessee.

There, a procession of all five Sparks elephants — the routine was supposed to keep Mary compliant, and it did the trick even though some observers later remembered the condemned creature behaving unusually skittishly — marched to the railyard.

There Mary was noosed with a 7/8″ chain and hoisted up. The chain broke, and the animal shattered its hip crashing to the ground; another, still larger, chain, did the trick on the second try.

Talk about a spectacle. Talk about scary clowns.

There’s something about this event abidingly piteous, even shameful. It may be for that reason that it’s also abidingly mysterious. The particulars about what happened on the day they hanged the elephant and what became of the body (a steamshovel dug a grave, but the exact location was never marked and there’s a wild story that it was dug up later for ivory) are the topics of conflicting, nth-hand rumors. Some in Erwin don’t to this day want to discuss the matter. Others, just the opposite.


Image (c) John Pugh of SourceToSea.net and used with permission.

* Sparks evidently kept the “largest living land animal” marquee in use for Mary’s successor, as indicated by this 1919 poster (pdf) for the show.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1823: Abram Antoine, revenger

1 comment September 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1823, American Revolution veteran Abram/Abraham Antoine was hanged in Madison County, New York, for avenging the execution of his daughter by murdering the man whose testimony hanged her.

Antoine was a Native American — presumably, although I have not seen it explicitly stated, Oneida.

This was the very springtime of American continental expansion, a project well-understood to entail the removal and, uh, “chastisement” and of the peoples lately occupying that continent.

Some more sensitive or scholarly souls of the time noticed, as this one does, that “[t]ime is advancing, by rapid strides, towards the extinction of the Indian race in North America.” Resolving therefore “to preserve such authenticated facts as, at this day, lie within our reach, that posterity may not be altogether ignorant of characteristics attached to a various people, that once reigned lords over this wide extended country,” a fellow Revolutionary War veteran named George Turner (Anglo, he) knocked out a volume meant to capture a snapshot of dying peoples from the viewpoint of the conqueror. (Turner really was an interested party: he’d speculated aggressively in the Northwest Territory.)

The bit on Antoine appears as one of numerous anecdotal vignettes — un-linked save by their respective purported relationship to a continent-wide temperament of the “savage” — under a chapter on “Traits of Indian Character.” The reader may judge what lessons the parable imparts thereto.

Savage Revenge and a Confirmed Murderer.

Abraham Antoine, an Indian, was executed in the county of Madison, New York, in 1823, for the murder of a Mr. Jacobs. He had committed three other murders. The first was on a child of his own, which he buried in the embers on the hearth — because he was disturbed by its crying: the second, on a man in Canada — because he had called him ‘an Indian dog.’ This man he followed for several days; when, finding him at an Inn, the Indian obtained leave to sleep by the fire. He stole, in the dead of the night, to the bed in which the man slept; and, plunging a knife into his bosom, gave the Indian whoop of victory, and escaped. The third, was of an Indian; whom he shot at a house-raising on the Susquehanna, on pretence that he had wronged him of part of a certain bounty.

As to Jacobs — for the murder of whom Antoine was hanged — it appears, that he had been a principal witness against Antoine’s daughter, who had murdered another female, through jealousy, for inveigling away her Indian suitor — and for which she had suffered death some years before. Jacobs, to escape the threatened vengeance of Antoine, left the country. Antoine invited his return, promising not to hurt him. But an Indian’s vengeance never sleeps. Jacobs returns: — Antoine gives him a friendly shake by the hand, and, with the other, repeated stabs from a long knife he had concealed under his shirt-sleeve — and again escaped from that justice which, at length, overtook him.

The same Indian was strongly suspected of having committed a fourth murder.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History

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1941: Eugene Johnson, the first electrocuted in Louisiana

4 comments September 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1941, the U.S. state of Louisiana joined the 20th century (or at least the late 19th) with its first electrocution.

Louisiana’s electric chair did debut very late in the game. The great surge of adoption for this uniquely American way of death was the 1910s and 1920s. Louisiana was the last state to begin electrocuting prisoners save one — West Virginia.

But in 1940, the state legislature had finally joined the trend sweeping the South and voted for voltage.

So on March 7, 1941, Louisiana hanged its last hangings.

Eugene Johnson, the next to die, has no purchase on death penalty annals but his accidental milestone as the first to die seated: a black man condemned for killing a white farmer is just about your standard-issue condemned man in the interwar South. (The more things change …)

Johnson’s death this date would inaugurate the nickel-and-dime execution solution that Baton Rouge came up with to keep its various parishes right in the thick of the retribution business: the portable electric chair soon christened Gruesome Gertie, which trucked around to the local jails and courthouses meting out motorized justice.

This particular chair, though a latecomer and a modest overall contributor by the standards of Louisiana’s neighbors, would make itself the subject of highest jurisprudence a few years later by not merely botching but failing the execution of one Willie Francis — and then again in the 1980s as the subject of another man’s near-miss legal challenge to the constitutionality of electrocution.

Having always found five friends on the high court, the illustrious furniture retired in 1991 with 87 souls to its electrodes (including that of Willie Francis the second time around: he lost his appeal). Gertie lives on adorning the set of the Angola Prison Museum — and the Academy Award-winning film Monster’s Ball.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Louisiana,Milestones,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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