Archive for January, 2012

1880: Daniel Searles, the first hanging in Tioga County

2 comments January 21st, 2012 Headsman

From the New York Evening Express, January 21, 1880.

DANIEL SEARLES HANGED.


THE NEGRO MURDERER OF OLD MR. REWEY

Sketch of a Brutal Crime — The Condemned Man Owns His Guilt and Admits the Justice of His Sentence.

OSWEGOOWEGO, N.Y., January 21. — The first instance of capital punishment in Tioga county occurred here to-day at noon. The extreme penalty of the law was inflicted upon Daniel Searles, an illiterate negro, who in June last murdered Eldridge Rewey, an aged farmer, who lived alone in the neighboring vilage of Newark Valley.

The murder was for the purpose of robbery, and was one of fiendish atrocity. Calling at the farmer’s house in the early evening of June 25, Searles felled him senseless to the floor, and then cut his throat with a razor.

He obtained about $300 by searching the house, and, on preparing to leave, noticed that his victim had revived. Rewey had also drawn a knife from his pocket, as if to defend himself, which the negro wrested from him, and with which he nearly decapitated his helpless victim.

He was arrested next day, tried before Judge Follett at OswegoOwego, and on December 8 was sentenced to be hung to-day.

Searles has made no attempt to deny his guilt, openly confessing the crime and saying he deserved to die for it. He has preserved a brave exterior throughout, and passed his last night on earth seemingly with less anxiety than did his executioner.

The execution took place in a temporary frame structure in the jail-yard, erected for the purpose. A cordon of military attended. The gallows was the same on which Penwell was executed at Elmira in July, 1877, for wife murder. The ponderous drop weighed three hundred pounds.

The spectators were in attendance at 11:45, some two hundred being present. Prayers were said in the prisoner’s cell at noon and the death warrant read to him.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1880: Andrew Scott and Thomas Rogan, bushrangers

1 comment January 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1880, Andrew George Scott and Thomas George “condemned to death for the part they took in the outrage at Wantabadgery, resulting in the death of constable Bowen, were executed at Darlinghurst Gaol.”


Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite (top); Thomas Rogan (bottom)

Scott is our main man here, an Anglican lay reader turned grifter turned flat-out outlaw with the nom de plunder “Captain Moonlite”: one of the strangest characters in Australia’s criminal annals.

How did a fellow with such a family-friendly alias end up involved in an “outrage”?

This colorful, charismatic immigrant (from Ireland, via New Zealand — and, legend has it, with a side trip to Italy to fight with Garibaldi) became a notorious public figure when, in outlandish masked getup, he robbed the bank of the South Victoria gold rush town of Mount Egerton.

His distinctive voice — remember, he was a parish reader — was recognized by his erstwhile friend at the other end of the gun, but Scott brazenly reversed the accusation and actually had his victim in the dock for a time. This Mount Egerton crime is the source of the man’s luminescent nickname, after the signature placed on a stickup note.

When he got out of prison in 1879 — having defended himself with panache, and escaped once along the way — he had a public profile, and actually got out on the lecture circuit for a brief spell.

But he soon returned to the annals of preposterous criminality.

Gathering five young followers, Moonlite went full-time into the bush. Allegedly spurned in a bid to join Ned Kelly‘s gang, Moonlite et al sought work at Wantabadgery Station.

When this refuge, too, turned them away, the outlaws found themselves in a rather pathetic state of hunger and desperately seized the place by main force. The resulting “outrage” was not a wholesale plunder of the station or wanton abuse of the prisoners (no rapes, no murders … although Moonlite did conduct a kangaroo “trial” of one of his hostages for attempting to escape: the verdict was not guilty): it was the inevitable ensuing shootout with police in which the bushrangers James Nesbitt and Augustus Wernicke died, along with the constable Bowen.

Two of the other three who survived this shootout also survived their brush with the law by blaming Captain Moonlite. The “Captain” may have been plenty eager to accept this fatal inculpation for reasons beyond those of mere honor.

In his prolific prison correspondence awaiting execution, Scott avowed his broken-hearted love for James Nesbitt, one of the two companions who had been killed in the shootout. The terms are astonishingly explicit for the time.

“My boy with a golden heart who died trying to save me … He was my constant companion; we had the deepest, truest bond of friendship. We were one heart and soul, he died in my arms and I long to join him, where there shall be no more parting. He died in my arms; his death has broken my hear. When I think of my dearest Jim, I am nearly driven mad. My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt”

Scott hanged wearing a ring of the late Nesbitt’s hair,* but his wish to share a burial plot was not honored — until Captain Moonlite was exhumed and reburied in 1995.


(cc) image from AYArktos.

* Asserted in Who’s Who In Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Outlaws

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1880: Prevost, predatory Parisian policeman

2 comments January 19th, 2012 Headsman

From a Paris Dispatch report via the New York Times. (Additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

It is just 10 years ago, day for day, that the notorious Troppman, the murderer of the Kink family, was executed on the Place de la Roquette. This morning another convict of the same stamp underwent the penalty of death on the same spot.

Prevost, the policeman who murdered the woman Blondin and the jewelry-dealer, Lenoble, and afterward cut their bodies up and threw the pieces into the sewers, was guillotined there at daybreak.


Thwack: Prevost clobbers Lenoble.

It having become known last night that his appeal for mercy had been rejected by the President of the Republic, a large crowd began to assemble as early as 9 o’clock round the place of execution. To prevent a recurrence of the scenes of disorder which took place there when the young criminals Lebiez and Barre, the assassins of the woman Gilles, were put to death, a strong force of infantry and cavalry guarded the square and kept the people at a distance.

The crowd, in spite of the bitter cold and piercing north-east wind, grew more numerous toward midnight, and by the hour of execution all the thoroughfares leading to the spot were crammed with people.

The executioner arrived at 4 o’clock, and, aided by his assistants, erected the guillotine about 20 paces from the central door of the prison. The guillotine once in order, the headsman and his assistants entered the prison to arrange what is called the toilet of the culprit previous to his death.

The Abbe Crozes, the Chaplain of the jail, was the first to enter the prisoner’s cell. Prevost started up, gazed wildly at the reverend gentleman, and then buried his head in his hands, trembling and groaning.

“Alas!” said the Chaplain, “there is no hope now but in the mercy of God.”

Prevost had lured the jewel-trader Lenoble on the pretext of arranging a transaction, then for no reason save crass acquisition of his wares bludgeoned him to death with the iron rod-and-ball device used to link railroad cars.

It was a premeditated and gruesomely executed crime.

Using butchers’ knives he had pre-obtained for the purpose, Prevost spent the next several hours skinning Lenoble, dismembering Lenoble, and ultimately dicing Lenoble up into cutlets so that he could heap Lenoble in a basket and dispose of Lenoble’s bits in less-suspicious fragments in a variety of sewer grates and refuse heaps.

Such as was recovered was heaped together at the morgue, “a mass of quivering flesh, stripped of skin … bones covered with their tendons, sternum, ribs with fragments of the chest, bones of the shoulder blades and arms … the liver, heart and guts, and the fragments of skin torn off one by one from each severed part.”*

After his capture for this shocking crime, he admitted that he’d also been the author of the unsolved murder several years before of his lover, Adele Blondin — likewise for pecuniary gain, and likewise disposed of in pieces after Pevost’s ghoulish close work with corpse and saw.

The condemned man then left his bed, but he was too much overcome to dress himself. That task was done by the executioner and his assistants. He was then left alone with the Abbe Crozes to prepare his soul. He embraced the Chaplain several times and wept bitterly.

“Take courage, take courage,” said the reverend gentleman.

“Yes, yes,” replied Prevost, “I will take courage and try to meet my fate. I ask pardon of the Police administration, to which I belonged seven years.”

“If this … pawnbroker has been murdered by some one of a higher class in society,” Dostoyevsky had mused in Crime and Punishment in 1866, “how are we to explain this demoralisation of the civilised part of our society?”

Prevost’s demoralization afflicted his cognition as well as his conscience, because he had actually made previous chit-chat with fellow-officers to the effect that were he to commit the perfect crime he would surely go and butcher the body for no-fuss disposal.

The condemned man, after kissing the crucifix three or four times, marched out to the guillotine wit a firm step, and in an instant he was on the fatal bascule.

The spring was touched, a dull thud was heard, and the next second his head fell into the basket.

After the execution the body and head of the murderer were taken to the School of Medicine, and, having been sown together, electrical experiments were made on them, and in the opinion of all the doctors present death must have been instantaneous.

* This quote, and the other interspersed crime details, and the nice bashing illustration, are all via this French crime pamphlet.

Part of the Daily Triple: 1880 and Death.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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Daily Triple: 1880 and death

3 comments January 19th, 2012 Headsman

Around the world in 1880 crimes …

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Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

1902: Gideon Scheepers, Boer guerrilla

6 comments January 18th, 2012 Headsman

Scheepers lives because they shot him.”

-Hermi Baartman, Graaf-Reinet Museum

On this date in 1902, Kommandant Gideon Jacobus Scheepers was shot by the British for his exploits in the Boer War.

The young Dutch-descended Scheepers (here’s his Afrikaans Wikipedia page) was a soldier from the still-independent Boer states which were being reduced in this war to British dependencies.

In 1901, late in the proceedings, Scheepers took a column of irregulars into the British Eastern Cape Province and wrought havoc behind the lines. Some exploits are the stuff of legend, like the time he rode into a town, released all the Boer prisoners, locked up the British magistrate, and hauled down the Union Jack — to the delight of the Boer locals.

He would spend that year giving the British much better than he got, but the war was also infamously dirty.

According to David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa: South Africa in Perspective, “Scheeepers’ men also flogged and shot natives who helped the British, looted as well as burned farms, and executed Boer ‘traitors’.”

Was any of that criminal?

Since Scheepers was over enemy lines, the Boers who joined him could be held liable for treason … but that didn’t hold for Scheepers himself. His execution turned on holding these unsavory acts as war crimes: his 30-count charge sheet included seven arsons, seven murders, and various and sundry abuses of prisoners and blacks. Scheepers was really sore about the last; natives were supposed to be kept out of the fighting, but the prisoner very credibly insisted that the ones he “murdered” were under arms as scouts for the British.

“We Afrikaners will never find justice under the English,” Scheepers wrote as a prisoner. “Everything is for the kaffirs.”

(There’s a vociferous defense of Scheepers from a pro-Boer history here, and a more sober one by a London press correspondent here.)


Scheepers is read the death warrant on January 17, 1902 — before Graaf-Reinet townspeople assembled by British orders.

For non-Loyalist Boers and for many throughout the world — the U.S. House of Representatives even moved a resolution calling for Scheepers to be accorded POW status according to the Geneva Convention — it smacked of a setup.


Gideon Scheepers (mostly obscured by his guards) tied to a chair for execution.


Just shot, Gideon Scheepers slumps backward in his chair.

While martyrdom guaranteed Scheepers a lasting legacy, bizarre posthumous turns helped elevate it into legend. When the dead man’s family turned up after hostilities to retrieve his bones, the grave turned out empty, leading to a years-long saga with colorful frauds presenting bogus remains, a mentally ill man doing the Grand Duchess Anastasia act and claiming to be Scheepers, and the actual corpse remaining stubbornly elusive.

The bereaved mother’s ultimately fruitless search for her son’s final resting place inspired the poem “Gebed om die Gebeente”(“Prayer for the Bones”), by D.J. Opperman. (Here’s a translated version.) That verse was recently set to music as a cantata by composer Hendrik Hofmeyr.

Scheepers’ allies, however, had simply been beaten in the field. On May 31, 1902 they capitulated to the British.

If we are asked why in 1978 a memorial should be erected for a man who died in 1902, then the answer is simple. The life and work of this man was such that history placed him in the heroes’ gallery and nothing and no one can deprive him of that place.

-Nationalist Prime Minister John Vorster upon the unveiling of a Scheepers monument

This interesting “On the Trail of Gideon Scheepers” series has a detailed and richly illustrated narrative of the man’s final year.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Mature Content,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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2006: Clarence Ray Allen, “beyond rehabilitation”

7 comments January 17th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2006, Clarence Allen was executed by the state of California for his role in the murders of three people.


Clarence Ray Allen packing heat and bravado in the 1970s (top); and, as a geriatric condemned man (bottom).

He could be seen as a kind of poster child for the death penalty: Allen was already serving a life sentence in prison for murder when he had the witnesses against him killed. As the Ninth Court of Appeals noted,

Given the nature of his crimes, sentencing him to another life term would achieve none of the traditional purposes underlying punishment. Allen … has proven that he is beyond rehabilitation.

The California Attorney General’s office provides a detailed account of his crimes here. (pdf) Crime Magazine ran a detailed piece on Allen in 2009. For Executed Today, a summary will suffice:

Allen, a father of two, presented an outward appearance of respectability (in fact, he ran a thriving security business) while organizing a gang of young people to help him commit many burglaries. In June 1974, Allen, his son Roger and other accomplices burglarized a Fresno supermarket and stole, among other things, $10,000 in money orders. Roger’s seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Mary Sue Kitts, later told Bryon Schletewitz, whose parents owned the supermarket, who had committed the burglary.

Allen had warned his gang that “snitches” would be put to death, and when he found out what Kitts had done he ordered her murder. Another member of the gang, Eugene Farrow, actually committed the deed, strangling Kitts and dumping her body in a canal. Her body has never been found.

Allen was convicted of the burglary and Kitts’s murder in 1977 and sentenced to life. Farrow pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

After his conviction, Allen ordered the murders of eight of the witnesses who had testified against him at the trial, including Schletewitz and his parents. His other son, Kenneth (lovely family they are), supplied weapons and transportation to Billy Ray Hamilton, a recently paroled prisoner who had been offered $25,000 to commit the murders, and Hamilton’s girlfriend, Connie Sue Barbo. In 1980, Hamilton and Barbo broke into the supermarket and shot Schletewitz as well as Douglas Scott White and Jacqueline Rocha, two teenagers who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Fortunately, Barbo was caught at the scene and Hamilton was arrested just a few days later, before he could get on with the hit list.

In 1982, Allen was sentenced to death for the three murders. Hamilton was also sent to Death Row, where he remains. Barbo got a life term. Kenneth accepted a plea agreement that offered minimal prison time in exchange for his testimony, but when he recanted his original statements the agreement was canceled and he got a life sentence.

Already fifty years old at the time of the supermarket murders, Allen had to wait a further twenty-six years for his date with death. While he was on Death Row his health deterioriated markedly.

By the time he was executed he was diabetic, nearly deaf, legally blind and confined to a wheelchair. He also had a heart attack in 2005 and had to have bypass surgery.

Given the circumstances of his crimes, his advanced age and poor health were the only mitigating circumstances his attorneys could think of to argue for a reprieve. The Ninth Court of Appeals didn’t agree that this constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the panel of judges, Judge Kim Wardlaw said,

His age and experience only sharpened his ability to coldly calculate the execution of the crime. Nothing about his current ailments reduces his culpability and thus they do not lessen the retributive or deterrent purposes of the death penalty.

For the same reasons, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to intervene to stop the execution, saying, “His conduct did not result from youth or inexperience, but instead resulted from the hardened and calculating decisions of a mature man.”

On the day of Allen’s execution, he had to be lifted from his chair onto the gurney. His last words were: “It’s a good day to die. Thank you very much. I love you all. Goodbye.” It took eighteen minutes and an extra dose of potassium chloride for him to die.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,California,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Organized Crime,Other Voices,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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2003: Daniel Juan Revilla

1 comment January 16th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2003, Daniel Juan Revilla was executed in Oklahoma for beating his girlfriend’s daughterson to death.

“Daniel gave his last few years to his project in the hope that his laughter and good spirit would live on through his work.”

Six months after his 18th birthday, Revilla appeared at the Jackson County hospital with his girlfriend’s infant son, screaming that the child had stopped breathing. The boy never revived.

Doctors trying to save little Mark Gomez couldn’t help but notice a catalogue of injuries: burns, bruises, cuts, brain hemorrhaging. Revilla’s explanation of careening through the house Homer Simpson-esque with the child — scalding him by trying to revive him with bathwater, bonking his head on the door running out to the hospital — didn’t persuade many.

Indeed, trial testimony from the mother and others tended towards the notion that Revilla openly disliked the kid because it wasn’t his, and was given to violently taking out his frustrated reproductive rivalry. He may have tried to “accidentally” kill the child previously.

The victim’s father, Juan Gomez, emerges from the news reports as a distinctly more impressive character, remembering the “short time, but still a good time” he had with Mark without losing empathy even for his murderous rival.

“I do forgive Mr. Revilla,” Juan Gomez told the media. “He was young at the time and I don’t think he realized what he did until it was too late. And I feel very sorry for his family for the loss of their son.”

Some thoughts of Daniel’s (about death row and the death penalty; he didn’t remark on the facts of the case) remain preserved on an ancient Internet page here. Sample:

The death penalty is unequivocally imposed arbitrarily. If you can’t afford justice, you’ll receive just as much justice as you can buy. In the case ofthe poor, that equals : none. There are those on death row, right now, with witnesses, evidence, DNA proof…etc, who can prove their innocence, if only they could afford it. Sadly, they can’t. Nor can they fight the Goliath system that oppresses them…They will die… The indigent, since they cannot afford to hire competent legal representation, are forced to capitulate. They abdicate their lives to the states ‘indigent defense system.’ An unimpressive, underfunded, jerkwater organization; implemented and appointed by the state, to facilitate the state’s desire to escort you through the formalities and into the execution chamber.

A comic series he drew during the half of his life he spent being escorted through the formalities and into the execution chamber was recently published as Dirt Road.

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

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1999: Recak Massacre

2 comments January 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1999, Serbian militants killed approximately 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians near the village of Reçak in Kosovo. The victims allegedly included a twelve-year-old boy and at least one woman.

Depending on who you listened to, it was either a massacre against innocent civilians, or a military action against guerillas.

The New Kosova Report, adopting the former point of view, summarizes in a 2008 article:

In the early morning of 15 January, 1999, forces from Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) moved into the village with tanks and began to shoot at houses sheltering civilians. After ransacking all the houses, they gathered 28 Albanian men and boys and ordered them to head towards a hill outside the village for questioning. There they were sprayed with machine guns and 23 of them died. Only five survived by pretending they were dead. Another 22 people were shot and/or decapitated at different places in the village. Some in a ravine behind the village, while others in front of their houses.

A local villager named Shefqet Avida gave photographer and BBC Radio reporter Melanie Friend an account which was later quoted in Friend’s book No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo.

Policemen — Serbs — were hiding here, expecting them. I heard the Serbs saying, “Anyone under fifteen years old, don’t touch, but upwards of sixteen or seventeen years old, just kill them …” The people, when they were captured here, were made to stay in line, and every one of them was shot, and after that with a … very nice knife … they took eyes from the faces and hearts from the chest, and the Serbs later said, “That’s not true, we didn’t do that,” the mice, they’d eaten them. […]

Serbian police were shooting until four or five in the afternoon. When the observers arrived in the morning, we went with them to see the place where the people were murdered. Three of us stayed here all night to guard the bodies. […] Thirteen members of my family were killed there.

The Serbs denied having murdered civilians and claimed all those killed were all Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, shot during a skirmish with Serbian forces. To this day, many maintain the entire thing was staged, a hoax set up by the KLA in order to get support for their side.

Trying to sort the matter out, the European Union dispatched forensic experts to the scene from Finland. Helena Ranta, one of the experts, concluded that “There were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians.” When her opinion was broadcast in a press release, many mistook it for being the opinion of the entire group of scientists.

The Finns’ official report, however, has never been released. Dr. Ranta, a forensic dentist, later accused officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of pressuring her to go against the Serbs.

Yugoslav and Belarusian scientists also examined the bodies and said they believed all the dead were KLA combatants. In response, critics blasted them for using allegedly out-of-date and unscientific testing methods.

News of the killings made headlines all over the world and incited NATO to finally get involved in the war. A couple of years later, Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Miloševic was brought up on war crimes charges; ordering the Reçak killings was one of them. It was later removed from the indictment for lack of evidence, however. (Miloševic died before his trial was concluded.)

In 2001, a Kosovo Serb police officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the killings. Outside observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, criticized the trial proceedings, accusing the Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias and politically motivated decision-making. As of this writing, no one else has been called to account for what happened in Reçak.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Cycle of Violence,Escapes,Execution,Executions Survived,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Kosovo,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Serbia,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA,Virginia

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1943: Jarvis Catoe

2 comments January 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1943, serial killer Jarvis Theodore Roosevelt Catoe was fried in the federal chair for the murder of Washington D.C. resident named Rose Abramowitz.

The 25-year-old victim, who had married only a month before, had hired Catoe to wax her kitchen floor.

Instead he raped and strangled her, left her sprawled on her bed and made off with $20.

Abramowitz wasn’t Catoe’s first victim and she would not be his last — although she was his first white victim; the previous ones had been black like Jarvis himself. This article summarizes Catoe’s career: homicides in New York City and Washington, beginning in 1935, as well as multiple robberies, rapes, indecent exposures and attempted kidnappings. To add insult to injury, an innocent man, James Matthew Smith, was convicted in his first murder and had already served several years of a life sentence by the time of Catoe’s arrest.

Time magazine called him a “one-man crime wave.” The D.C. police’s failure to catch him resulted in serious public embarrassment for the department and a dressing-down before Congress. Not bad for a killer so obscure his name isn’t even in Wikipedia.

Catoe’s last victim was Evelyn Anderson, a waitress in the Bronx. After he strangled her and left her body in an alley he took her purse and watch and gave it to a lady friend, who gave it to another friend, who gave it to a man who pawned it for $20. The New York Police, who had been checking the local pawn shops, found the watch and traced it through its various handlers, finally landing on Catoe, who had moved back to Washington by then.

He confessed to seven murders that he could remember, but reckoned the real body count was “about ten.” Most, but not all, of his victims had been sexually assaulted. A classic sexual sadist, Catoe stated he suffered from “spells” where he had an uncontrollable urge to kill. These spells tended to happen after he’d been reading detective stories and looking at pornography.

Catoe later retracted all his statements, saying he’d been “sick and weak” and the police and badgered him into making up stories. The jury didn’t buy it: in the Abramowitz trial, they were out for only eighteen minutes before voting for conviction and the death penalty.

He walked into the death chamber singing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Serial Killers,USA,Washington DC

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