Archive for May, 2012

1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

Add comment May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr

Add comment May 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1416, the Council of Constance had Jerome of Prague burned at the stake in the town square.

This eloquent, injudicious theologian studied at Prague, Oxford, Paris, Cologne, Heidelberg … accumulating Master’s degrees along the way like a career graduate student, but repeatedly finding himself run off the premises on suspicion of heresy.

Jerome’s “heresy” was an excessively combative hostility to ecclesiastical corruption. And although Jerome was known for his rapier tongue, he didn’t always find the pen mightier than the sword: he got into a few physical scraps with his foes.

While in England, he copied out a manuscript of preacher John Wycliffe — whose radical piety (or pious radicalism) inspired the rebellious Lollard movement.

Back on the continent, Jerome fell in with Jan Hus. Ten years Jerome’s senior, Hus was and remains the first name in Bohemian religious reform, and the “Hussite” church he founded still retains his name.

After Hus unwisely accepted a guarantee of safe conduct to dispute at the Council of Constance, the more ornery Jerome slipped into town to propagandize on his mentor’s behalf. After placarding his way to trouble, he slipped back out and must have thought he’d had his cake and eaten it too … until he was caught in the Black Forest.

Jerome spent nearly a full year in a dungeon — the Council met for four years; it had a massive schism to sort out — and at one point the privations of imprisonment led him recant. He later bitterly regretted that concession to “pusillanimity of mind and fear of death,” but on a strictly doctrinal level Jerome of Prague wasn’t anti-Catholic: he just wanted the church to be less of a bunch of corrupt, overweening racketeers.

By the time he was ready to answer for himself, and his soul, he was well past any spirit of capitulation. A witness to the procedure wrote of Jerome on trial for his life:

I have never seen any one, who, in pleading, especially in a capital offence, approached nearer the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire. It was so amazing to see with what fluency of language, what force of expression, what arguments, what looks and tones of voice, with what eloquence, he answered his adversaries and finally closed his defence. It was impossible not to feel grieved, that so noble, so transcendent a genius had turned aside to heretical studies, if indeed the charges brought against him are true.

When that part of his indictment was read in which he is accused of being “a defamer of the papal dignity, an opposer of the Roman pontiff, an enemy of the cardinals, a persecutor of the prelates and clergy, and a despiser of the Christian religion,” he arose, and with outstretched hands and with lamenting tones, exclaimed: “Whither now, conscript Fathers, shall I turn myself? Whose aid can I implore? Whom supplicate, whom entreat for help? Shall I turn to you? Your minds have been fatally alienated from me by my persecutors, when they pronounced me an enemy of all mankind, even of those by whom I am to be judged. They supposed, should the accusations which they had conjured up against me, seem trivial, — you would, by your decisions, not fail to crush the common enemy and opposer of all, — such as I had been held up to view, in their false representations. If, therefore, you rely upon their words there is no longer any ground for me to hope.”

Some of them he wrung hard by the sallies of his wit; while others he overwhelmed with biting sarcasms; and from many, even in the midst of sadness, he forced frequent smiles, by the ridicule which he heaped upon their accusations.

At length, launching out in praise of John Huss who had been condemned to the fire, he pronounced him a good, just, and holy man, altogether unworthy of such a death, — adding that he was also prepared to undergo, with fortitude and constancy, any punishment whatsoever, yielding himself up to his enemies and the impudent lying witnesses, “who would, at length, have to give an account of all they had uttered, before God, whom they could not possibly deceive.” Great was the grief of all that stood around him. Thee was a universal desire among them to save so noble a personage, could his own consent be obtained. Persevering, however, in his opinions, he seemed voluntarily toseek death; and continuing his praise of John Huss, he declared that man had never conceived any hostility to the church of God; but that it was to the abuses of the clergy, and the pride, pageantry and insolence of her prelates alone he felt opposed; for, since the patrimony of the church was due, in the first place, to her poor; then to her guests; and finally to her on workshops; it seemed to that good man, a shameful thing, to have it expended upon courtezans and in banquets; for the sustenance of horses and dogs, the adornment of garments and other things unworthy of the religion of Christ.

Most exalted was the genius of which he showed himself possessed! Often was he interrupted in his discourse by various noises; and greatly vexed by those who carped at his opinions; yet he left none of them untouched, but equally avenging himself upon all, he either covered them with confusion, or else compelled them to hold their peace. A murmur arising against him, he paused for a moment; and then, having admonished the crowd, proceeded with his defence, — praying and beseeching them to suffer one to speak whom they would soon hear no more. At none of the noise and commotion around him did he tremble, or lose, for a single instant, the firmness and the intrepidity of his mind.

“You will condemn me iniquitously and unjustly,” he prophesied to his judges, “and when I am dead, I shall leave remorse in your consciences and a dagger in your hearts; and soon, within a hundred years, — you will all have to answer me, in the presence of a Judge most high and perfectly just.”

Reports differ as to the subsequent standing of all these men’s souls. But for the church as a going earthly concern, Jerome nailed it almost exactly: 101 years after he followed Jan Hus to the stake,* that long-suppressed spirit of reform irrevocably splintered papal authority.

* In the very same spot where Hus himself was burnt.

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1985: Marvin Francois, back to Africa

Add comment May 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1985, Florida electrocuted Marvin Francois (to the disappointment of this unknown anti-death penalty protester).

Francois’s last statement, via Last Words of the Executed:

“I am as a grain of sand on the beach of the black race. The black race has lost its pride and dignity and is slowly dying from within and without. My death ends my tears, and the fortune of watching my race slowly die. If there is such a thing as an Antichrist, it ain’t one man, but the whole white race.”

Francois had donned a mask and, with a couple of confederates, stuck up a drug house in 1977.

The mask slipped, exposing Francois’s face — and the home invaders decided to murder the eight prisoners to keep them from making the ID. All were shot in the head execution-style.

Somehow, two survived to identify Marvin Francois. It was an easy conviction. (A confederate, Beauford White, was executed for the same crime in 1987.)

Once the death sentence was on the books, appellate attorneys developed a genuinely sympathetic profile of Francois’s background, if not his crime. A federal appeals court on the day before Marvin Francois died could not help but agree that

[t]he proffered evidence shows that Francois was the product of a sordid and impoverished childhood environment. His parents were not married. His father was a habitual heroin addict who never worked, who brought other addicts into the home for the ingestion of heroin in front of Francois when a child, and who beat Francois because he would not fight with other children when he was a boy. Francois’ mother often worked as a prostitute and was of little benefit to Francois during his childhood. She married but Francois’ step-father abused him. Francois grew up as a child of the street. At the same time he was smart, and although not finishing school, he obtained his G.E.D.

The behavioral scientists in their affidavits posit that “… some offenders, like Marvin Francois, are themselves victims of circumstances that shape their lives in ways beyond their deliberate control.” They suggest that given Francois’ chaotic antisocial upbringing, “clear mitigation of punishment compellingly surfaces.”

Nevertheless, the panel concluded that, given the extent of the crime (and his existing history of violence), all this sob-story stuff “would not have affected the sentencing outcome in this case had it been submitted to the jury.”

That was that.

It was a touching parting for at least one good friend on death row with him. “We wanted to send him out on a high,” a fellow-prisoner later remembered of sharing a last cigarette with Francois while imagining it a joint. “It took a little out of me when they killed him. I’d grown real attached to him.”

According to David von Drehle’s Among the Lowest of the Dead, that disattachment was rather unusually distant: Marvin Francois’s final resting place is … the sea off Dakar, Senegal.

Francois had asked that his ashes be scattered in Africa. Susan Cary, the longtime activist … was determined that this last wish would be honored. But it was one thing to find bus fare for a condemned man’s family, and quite another to raise the money for a trip to Africa. Cary collected the cremated remains of Marvin Francois and put them in a shoebox in her closet, where they sat for two years while she tried to figure out how to get them across the ocean.

In 1987, Michael Radelet, Cary’s frend and fellow activist, announced that he was going to Senegal to visit a relative. Take Marvin, Cary suggested. Radelet was game, but there were rules — human remains can’t just be toted from country to country. Uncertain as to the relevant legalities, Radelet contacted John Conyers, a prominent black congressman from Detroit; Conyers strongly opposed the death penalty, he was well known in Africa, and he had offered more than once to help Florida’s anti-death penalty crusaders any way he could. The congressman pulled the right strings, and shortly before his trip Radelete received an official letter announcing that the Senegalese government would be happy to welcome “Brother Marvin” home.

… Radelet had a darkly comic view of the world. Traipsing around Senegal, shoebox in hand, he would place the box on the opposite chair at restauants and say things like “Marvin, would you like some water?” On sightseeing jaunts, he would take snapshots of the shoebox in front of important buildings and picturesque vistas. Finally, Radelet carried the box to a bluff outside Dakar, a lovely spot with the city in the distance and the Atlantic spread out below. He took one more snapshot – “Marvin at the seashore” — then opened the box and sprinkled the ashes on the sun glittered waves. As he gazed into the oceanic expanse, it occurred to him that this very water might have rocked and sloshed all the way from Florida; now, the waves lapped the shores of Africa, bearing the remains of Marvin Francois to his dreamland.

The aforementioned Michael Radelet — now at Colorado University, not Florida — holding forth on more up-to-date death penalty trends:

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1686: Paskah Rose, Jack Ketch interregnum

2 comments May 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1686, the English executioner Paskah (or Pascha) Rose was hanged at Tyburn for burglary — by his predecessor and his successor, the famed hangman Jack Ketch.

(c) image from Peter Herring, used with permission. Also see this illustration

The “Jack Ketch” character from a Punch and Judy puppet show: traditionally, Punch gets the better of their meeting and hangs Jack Ketch.

The Irish immigrant Ketch is the first name in English executioners. Indeed, you can call any of his successors right down to Pierrepoint a “Jack Ketch” and be perfectly understood.

The immediate successor, however, was Ketch’s own assistant — who inherited top billing after Ketch went to jail for “affronting” a sheriff.

Jack Ketch had been trodding the scaffold-boards, hanging, beheading, and drawing-and-quartering for two-plus decades at that point: he’s thought to have been appointed in 1663, and he’d inserted himself into those performances rather more prominently than an executioner ought by botching some of Restoration England’s most high-profile executions.

There’s little reliable information about these early executioners, but it seems Ketch’s reputation for clumsiness had forced him to issue an “Apologie” justifying himself.

But the man unquestionably had longevity in his favor, which is more than Paskah Rose could say.

Within months of becoming the chief London executioner, Rose and another man were chased down in the act of burgling clothes from a house, “the Goods found in Rose’s Breeches.”

Rose and his co-defendant Edward Smith accordingly hanged along with three others at Tyburn this date — by Jack Ketch, now returned from his carceral retirement for one last tour.

Ketch died late that same year of 1686, but has lived on in any number of ballads, doggerels and broadsides immortalizing the name. He was surely aided in this by the less impressive caliber of many who succeeded him: it wasn’t long after Ketch dispatched Pascha Rose that another “Jack Ketch” — an ignoble profession that wouldn’t until centuries hence be drawn from the country’s respectable classes — also met Pascha Rose’s same fate.

There’s a now-public-domain Autobiography of Jack Ketch by 19th century English writer Charles Whitehead.

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1776: Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman, Smugglerius?

2 comments May 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1776, smugglers Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman were hanged at Tyburn for murdering a customs-house officer who had intercepted them trafficking tea on the Deptford turnpike.

One of these two gentleman might well be the flesh-and-bones person behind the ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

This beautifully ghastly item was commissioned of sculptor Agostino Carlini by the anatomist William Hunter: it is the cast of a hanged man, meticulously flayed of his skin to reveal the musculature for the convenience of future students’ sketches. Those students gave their subject the jocular nickname, since in life it was thought to be a smuggler.

For good measure, Carlini posed the corpse in the manner of the Hellenistic marble Dying Gaul.


Dying Gaul (known in the 18th century as Dying Gladiator), one of the world’s best-known classical sculptures. (cc) image from Tom Magliery.

Of the “Dying Gladiator”, Byron wrote:

He recked not of the life he lost, nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother, — he their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday; —
All this rushed with his blood; — Shall he expire,
And unavenged? — Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!


A copy of Agostino Carlini‘s bronze cast of “Smugglerius”, displayed in Edinburgh. (cc) image from Chris Hill.

So that is Smugglerius, an astonishing artifact. For decades, it (actually a copy of Carlini’s original, which is long lost) has been parked at the Edinburgh College of Art, translating thence into countless students’ anatomical sketch pads.


William Linnell‘s 1840 drawing of Smugglerius.

To trace the ecorche‘s origin, we have, to start with, this letter from John Deare … not the tractor guy, but a noteworthy Liverpool sculptor. At time of writing in 1776, he was a 15-year-old matriculating art student:

One of the men bid me tell you, that Mr. Carter would give me half-a-guinea, at least, a week, for the first part of my time, and fifteen shillings for the latter part; but you will write to him, and ask him what he proposes: he is, just as they say, a blustering fellow, but a good man. I have seen two men hanged, and one with his breast cut open at Surgeons’ Hall. The other being a fine subject, they took him to the Royal Academy, and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator. In this Hall there are some casts from Nature that are cut from the middle of the forehead down to the lower part of the body, one part excoriated, and the other whole.

With the direct reference to the Dying Gladiator/Dying Gaul pose, we seem very clearly to have a bead on the creation of Smugglerius, and the letter suggests that it was one man taken from a pair of hanging subjects. Conveniently (or inconveniently) there were just two such pairs of executions at Tyburn in the spring of 1776: those of Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman on May 27; and, those of Samuel Whitlow and James Langar on April 12.

Now, artist Joan Smith and anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo have recently, and very publicly, argued that Smugglerius is not Harley or Henman, but James Langar — a man from the earlier hanging pair. This claim even teased an exhibition carrying the perhaps unfortunate title Smugglerius Unveiled.

The case for Langar basically has two components:

  1. Deare dated his letter about the “Dying Gladiator” on May 1, so the executions must precede that date — which means that it’s one of Langar or Whitlow.
  2. It’s more likely that Langar, a soldier, would have had the outstanding physique to attract Hunter’s interest. (Whitlow was a domestic servant who robbed his master in an unrelated crime.)

Headlines aside, this sleuthing obviously falls well shot of airtightness.

Historian Tim Hitchcock, incidentally a moving spirit behind the creation of the invaluable Old Bailey Online database, doesn’t find James Langar a persuasive candidate. In private communication with this site (4 April 2012), he remained “still very much of the opinion that [Smugglerius] is either Thomas Henman or Benjamin Harley … I am even more convinced now than before.” Here’s the case for one of the Harley/Henman pair:

  1. Harley and Henman were smugglers. You know … like Smugglerius?
  2. Trial records indicate death-sentenced prisoners also condemned to anatomization, and they do not say that about Whitlow and Langar, who were merely thieves
  3. Harley and Henman, by contrast, had killed; they were therefore subject to the Murder Act, and accordingly sentenced “to be afterwards dissected and anatomized; which sentence was executed upon them”*

All things equal outside of the date on Deare’s letter, Harley and Henman look much the likelier source of Smugglerius. (If so, we seem to lack any good reason to prefer Harley as the Smugglerius model as against Henman, or vice versa. Flip a coin.)

The historiography for Langar depends inordinately upon the present-day interlocutor’s confidence in the “1 May” date a Georgian-era teenager slapped onto a bit of personal correspondence with, one can be sure, nothing resembling academic gravity. May 1 could be mistaken outright (maybe it was June 1, and he wrote “May” out of the previous 31 days’ habit); or, it could be only a reference to when Deare began a letter that he might have composed over several weeks; or, it could be that the author had some trivial reason of personal expediency to backdate.

Maybe so, maybe not. But who would have thought anyone would be interested in Harley or Henman (or Langar) going on two and a half centuries after their deaths.

Executed Today had occasion to discuss this fascinating object d’art and its discomfiting origin with one of Hitchcock’s collaborators, IUPUI Professor of British History Jason M. Kelly.

ET: What’s the background? Why is Smugglerius being produced at all in 1770s Britain?

JK: Well, 1768 marked the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts. It took over 20 years to create.

The idea was to give Britain a school of art — of painting, sculpture, and architecture — to rival its continental peers. The French had established art academies in the previous century; they were among the premier art schools in Europe, if not the premier schools.

The British didn’t have anything comparable. And, in an age of rivalries, both political and cultural, artists and patrons alike saw the Royal Academy as central to British national identity.

The Academy hired William Hunter to be the professor of anatomy. He was an anatomist — a doctor — by training, not an artist, so he was very interested in teaching things like musculature, skeletal structure, and the circulatory system.

Smugglerius was not William Hunter’s only ecorche. He had made at least one other as a teaching aid, and he was proud to associate himself with it. He even poses for a portrait with a miniature version of it.


Miniature portrait of William Hunter holding a miniature bronze from Michael Henry Spang‘s reduction of an earlier ecorched figure. (The full-sized figure can be seen in the background of this sketch.)

What actually goes into producing an ecorche?

They had to get the body from the gallows to the art academy. Then they flayed it. In this case, somebody decided to pose the corpse as the Dying Gladiator.

They had some time prior to rigor mortis to get everything situated. in this case, they flayed him, posed him, then let him dry out, possibly overnight, so that they could make a mold of his body.

Beyond its immediate use as a teaching device, it’s also an art object for appreciation in its own right. How do you read that phenomenon?

This is very much a representation of the power of the state, the unrestrained power.

The execution itself is a display of power, but the government went further when in 1752 it passed the Murder Act allowing the College of Surgeons to get six bodies a year to dissect.

Ordinary people had no desire to have their remains used in this way. In the example of Smugglerius, the criminal was executed. Then, the body was desecrated — transformed into an art object for elite connoisseurs.

The sculpture was meant to represent ideal beauty as well as the terrifying strength of the state. The very people who were meant to appreciate the model of the Dying Gaul were the same people holding the reigns of power. In a sense, this image reinforced the elites’ view of the world, both aesthetically and politically.

Why pose the figure in this way, as the Dying Gaul or Dying Gladiator?

There’s one reading of Smugglerius to the effect that it was very subversive because the Dying Gladiator was seen as emblematic of the decline of Rome: the sculpture represented Rome’s decadence and corruption.

an inveterate abuse, which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still [in the early 5th century] exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty … which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion.

-Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

So, you could speculate that this pose slyly represented contemporary executions under the Bloody Code in the same critical way.

The Gladiator was also one of the best-known and -admired classical sculptures in all of Europe, along with the Laocoön.

In the 18th century they were compared as two examples of dignified dying. Contemporaries saw a certain stoicism in the sculptures — even though Virgil wrote that Laocoön cried out.

Ultimately, Smugglerius reminds us what happens when power is unrestrained. In a world where most people don’t have a voice, the state can ignore the rights and dignity of individuals. The real story here is the story of arbitrary authority and the importance of an enfranchised citizenry with the ability to put limits on those wielding power.

* Hanged felons not sentenced to anatomization could still wind up being taken apart in an operating theater, either as a result of their striking a direct bargain with the surgeons, or involuntarily via London’s growing trade in illicit corpses.

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1884: Mary Lefley, exonerated by a deathbed confession

3 comments May 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1884, Mary Lefley was hanged at Lincoln County Gaol for lacing her husband’s pudding with a lethal dose of arsenic.*

It was less than four months since William Lefley ate the rice pudding his wife Mary had left him in the oven while she called at a nearby town. This strange poisoning case is admirably covered by Capital Punishment UK, whose work we’ve featured here before. It’s one of the essential online sources on British execution history.

Shrieking in terror, Lefley had to be dragged to the gallows — still protesting her innocence. She’d never admitted to the crime, and they’d never been able to show that she purchased any arsenic.

There was some thought that William may have committed suicide: he’s known to have attempted it once before. But the more outlandish defense hypothesis that some unknown third party might have snuck in and poisoned the morsel gained unexpected credence in 1893 when a farmer made a deathbed confession to having done just that … over a wholly unrelated-to-Mary financial grudge.

* Mary Lefley knew the last notorious Lincolnshire poisoner, Priscilla Biggadyke — who hanged for poisoning off her husband in 1868. “They are hanging me for my past!” Lefley exclaimed when she was convicted. (Priscilla turned out to be innocent, too.)

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1872: Communards Serizier, Boin and Boudin

1 comment May 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1872, three adherents of the late Paris Commune were shot at Satory (which was doing steady business in the execution of Communards).

We take this story from the dispatch filed the same day for the London Telegraph and reprinted in the New York Times. Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.


Dilatory as the French authorities are in bringing culprits to trial, they dispatch them with terrible haste so soon as their guilt has been certified by the final Court of Appeal. No public notice is ever given of an execution, and few people ever hear of it until it is all over.

A paragraph appeared in an evening paper last night to this effect: “The Commission of Pardons has commuted the sentenced passed on PASCAL and LUCIPIA; the appeals of SERIZIER, BOIN and BOUDIN have been rejected.” To the world at large this paragraph conveys no hint as to the date of execution; the initiated read between the lines that on the following morning, dawn will rise on a dismal military pageant on the plains of Satory.

There is, nevertheless, a certain amount of uncertainty in the matter, so very closely are all such secrets kept in France; and it was only on the receipt of a hint from a high authority that some time after midnight I determined to start with a friend for Satory. The impression made upon me by the ghastly spectacle I shall try to describe in the plainest possible language.

SATORY.

A finer exercising ground than the plain of Satory it is not possible to imagine. The ground is as flat as a billiard-table, and it is not devoid of a certain beauty — the thick turf being singularly fresh, and he vast square plain surrounded by a belt of fine trees.

Troops are marching in companies to take up their appointed positions on the ground. A raised battery is a prominent object, and opposite to it, at some distance, is a huge earthen mound, against which a target stands out distinctly in black and white. The troops are forming in three sides of a square, which is completed by this butt.

It is not until you get quite close to the mound that you perceive on the lower ground immediately in front three white sticks ranged in a line, each about four feet high and five feet apart. These are the poteaux against which the culprits are to stand.

A good many soldiers, not on duty, have turned out en amateur to see the show; they collect on the top of a mound near the butt, but they are driven down by the artillery sentinels and mounted police, who, dressed in a little authority, canter about with superfluous fidgety zeal.

The morning air is chill, and everybody on duty or off duty tries to comfort himself with a smoke. “Nous avons encore trente-cinq minutes,” says a sergent-de-ville, in a grumbling, querulous tone. And the condemned men? They only had thirty-five minutes, and methinks they had as much reason to complain.

A soldier proceeds to work at the target, sqwing it off short; he is going to take it away, perhaps, that it may not divert the soldiers’ aim; and one feels irritated with him for being so slow.

One wonders, too, that they have allowed the red signal flag to remain at the top of the butt. Would not a Communist see an omen or an augury in the accident?

An engineer close to me is coolly fashioning wedges, in preparation for the artillery practice, which is to begin “aussitot que cette affaire est finie.”

Another protests impatiently that he wants his breakfast. Three dogs, which are perpetually frightening the horses of the mounted police, as well as the riders, excite continual merriment. There are scarcely more than a dozen civilians present, but I observe two women.

One — a brazen-looking creature, with a black mustache, and wearing that peculiar kind of hooded cloak which you see constantly in Belgium — was laughing a hoarse, harsh laugh, that chilled one’s blood. The other was charmingly dressed in black silk, and looked like a lady; she spoke to nobody; her face was deadly pale; her eyes were large with tears, and yet there was a strange compression about the lips that told of intesnse firmness of purpose. Her bearing was rigidly calm, but I fancied that the stick of her dainty black parasol was snapped in two.

What had that woman to do at such a scene? I know not; but, assuredly, it was not curiosity that brought her there. There was now a slight diversion. A cart drove up covered with black cloth, and hid itself away to the left of the poteaux.

THE EXECUTIONERS AND THE CONDEMNED.

Then the pelotons or firing parties marched in and piled arms opposite the same slim sticks about which everything in that huge plain seemed to gather of its own accord.

The pelotons were taken, one from the line, two from the Chasseurs de Vincennes. Hardened though they must be by this time and embittered though they are against the Communists, I do not think, to do them justice, that they liked their duty. They looked pale, they were perpetually falling out, and they smoked with suspicious eagerness.

I tried to impress on my own mind that these fellows were murderous ruffians who had slain unoffending fellow-creatures in cold blood. SERIZIER and BOIN, Colonel and Lieutenant in the Communist army, had tortured and killed the very priests who had devoted themselves to the task of tending the wounded on both sides, for no reason but that they were good men. BOUDIN had actually shot down a chemist in the Rue Richelieu because he protested against his son, a mere lad, being impressed into working at a barricade.

But, with the best will in the world, I could not persuade myself that it was right and proper for 5,000 soldiers to be brought out under arms for the mere sake of killing three defenceless wretches. Meanwhile the minutes passed on; the officers rolled up cigarettes, compared watches, and consoled each other with the reflection, “Soyez tranquille, mon cher, ca sera l’heure militaire.”

And so it was; for just as the first silvery tones of a distant church clock were wafted across the heath, striking the hour, the trumpets rang, the drums beat Aux champs, the troops dressed up, and the three ambulance wagons dashed into the square at a sharp trot.

The prisoners had not been apprised of their appeal hvaing been rejected until four o’clock in the morning, but they seem to have accepted their fate with singular philosophy. They had all eaten and drunk, and SERIZIER had asked for a “pipe of tobacc” for the last time. In driving along he said to the two gendarmes by whom he was accompanied, “Wat a mistake I made to quit Belgium! Quelie belle affaire j’ai fait la. C’est egal, je saurai bien mourir.

Strangely enough, he confessed to a Dominican, a priest of the ver order against which he had shown such diabolical hatred.

Each man was accompanied by two gendarmes. And here I cannot help noting one of the strange peculiarities of an over-excited state of mind. When the drums beat “Aux champs,” the merely dramatic feeling of the scene was intensely moving.

And yet when, a moment later, I first caught sight of the tops of the jack-boots of the first tell gendarme who appeared at the ambulance doors, I was so forcibly reminded of “Le Petit Faust,” and scores of other pieces wherein these functionaries are held up to ridicule, that I almost burst out into hysterical laughter.

The tragedy, however, soon proved too terrible, for the gendarme was closely followed by BOIN, who had scarcely touched the ground before he exclaimed, waving his hat in the air, “Vive la Commune!”

The three men walked quickly to the poteaux, and placed themselves in position as coolly as though it were the most natural thing in the world. They then, as though with one accord, flung their hats or caps into the air, and shouted several times in thrilling tones, “Vive la Commune!”

They all three were smoking. SERIZIER threw away his pipe, but BOIN kept his cigar in his hand, and BOUDIN was actually smoking as he fell. The face of the latter was so covered up by the handkerchief with which he alone allowed his eyes to be bandaged that his features could not be discerned.

SERIZIER, who was in the middle, indignantly threw down the handkerchief with such force as to cast it far beyond him. BOIN also refused the bandage wherewith the soldier stationed beyond him offered to cover his eyes, and by an involuntary action he put it into his pocket.

BOUDIN was coarsely clad; and SERIZIER, an undersized man, with heavy sensual features, looked like the type of a London rough. BOIN was a tall, well-built man, having good, clean-cut features and black mustaches. He was dressed in a light-brown velvet coat, Garde Nationale trousers, and a colored-scarf round the waist.

THE EXECUTION.

The priest, going up to each in turn, kissed him on both cheeks, in what seemed to me a hurried and perfunctory manner.

Then, while the sentence was being read to the prisoners in a quick, low, quite inaudible tone, BOIN made a long harangue, much of which was lost in the perpetual rolling of those ghastly drums.

But one could distinguish snatches of sentences such as “Soldiers, you are children of the people as we are, and we will show you how children of the people can die. Nous mourons innocents,” and then opening wide his light coat — he wore no waistcoat — he offered his white shirt-front for a mark, and, striking his heart with his open palm, he exclaimed: “Portez armes en joue! feu! tirez au coeur!”

This he repeated several times, and while he was yet speaking, standing out clear away from the poteaux and looking death at ten paces literally in the face, a sword flashed in the sun, and the three men leaped from the ground only to fall to it in horrible contortions.

The smoke and the report were unheeded, for all the senses of the horrified spectator were arrested by the awful spectacle of writhing limbs and twisting hands.

BOIN seemed to be rewarded for his bravery by suffering less than the others, but SERIZIER literally rolled over, and BOUDIN also moved. The surgeon then went up, examined BOUDIN first, and then directed one of the sergeants in reserve to give the coup de grace in the ear. Then SERIZIER was examined and treated in the same way; and lastly, after a considerable interval, BOIN was dragged into position and dispatched.

I cannot give you any idea of the sickening impression produced by this seemingly deliberate butchery.

I say seemingly, for the men may have been dead, but, in any case, surely if the coup de grace must be given, it should be done at once. I did not time the proceedings, but, long as my description is, I believe that not more than two minutes elapsed from the time that the ambulance wagons came on to the ground to the time that the volley was fired.

Several more minutes, however, elapsed before the dull thud of the last coup de grace delivered a bout pontant right into the poor wretch’s ear struck upon the ground. I have seen something of the horrors of war at Sedan and Strasbourg; I have witnessed the degradations of a public hanging in England, but have never seen anything so horrible as this supplemental butchery of the coup de grace.

AN AFTER SCENE.

When the surgeon and his attendants retired fro the poteaux, it became evident that painfully long as the interval had been, he had not been sparing of trouble. For with an eye to dramatic effect, he had disposed the bodies symmetrically, so that their feet should point towards the defiling troops.

Then the trumpets struck up a lively tune, and all the troops present — three batteries of artillery, carbineers and other caalry, four or five battalions of the line, engineers, &c. — some five thousand men — marched at quick step before the stark, stiff, staring bodies.

I cannot think that such a sight can have any other effect than that of exciting sympathy for the guilty. To see a man lying on his back there, his head a shapeless mass and the large red spot on his breast growing every moment larger and larger, and to think that not ten minutes ago he was speaking with passionate eloquence — this tended rather to make one forget his crimes than to remember his cruelty.

Yet I am bound to confess that this feeling is not shared by all, for when the troops had passed by, and the black van had driven up and unladen its dreadful burden of plain coffins, I saw an officer point with his foot at the yet warm brains of BOIN, and I heard him say, “C’est avec celui qu’il a fait son discours.”

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1944: Admiral Inigo Campioni

Add comment May 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Italy’s fascist rump government shot its former naval commander in Parma.

Inigo Campioni (English Wikipedia page | Italian) was both a Senator and the Admiral in charge of Italy’s main battle fleet when war came in 1940.

Knocked for overcaution during a few engagements with the British, he was relieved of his leading command position by the end of that year.

Come September 1943, he was at the island of Rhodes when Italy agreed to an armistice with the Allies. This was actually quite an unlucky spot to be, since the Germans, anticipating this development, had prepared a lightning Dodecanese Campaign to seize Italy’s positions in the Greek islands.

Many Italians resisted the German incursion, and suffered some of the war’s more infamous massacres for their trouble.

Campioni, who likewise recognized the government that signed the armistice, was captured within three days.

Unlike those recalcitrant Italians who met a summary fate, the admiral’s stature made him worth the trouble of trying to persuade. He was shipped first to a camp in Poland then to a prison in the northern Italian fascist statelet still headed by his former boss, Mussolini.

Campioni just kept refusing to recognize this Italian Social Republic: even to the end, he had a reprieve from shooting on offer for the price of an expedient word.

For never speaking that word, and instead suffering the fusillade with fellow-admiral Luigi Mascherpa, Admiral Campioni has been well-honored in posterity.

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1892: Frederick Bailey Deeming, Bluebeard

2 comments May 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1892, Frederick Bailey Deeming was hanged in Melbourne, Australia for the murder of his second wife, Emily Mather. She was not his only victim; he’d also murdered his first wife, son and three daughters.

Deeming was born and raised in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the UK. One of seven children, he was reportedly a “difficult” child. He later claimed he’d spent years in mental hospitals as a youth, something his brother disputed.

Deeming ran away to sea at sixteen and began committing crimes, mostly thefts. Wherever he went, he swindled and stole from people.

Deeming married Marie James in 1881 (his brother married Marie’s sister) and they moved to Australia. They went on to have four children.

In 1888, Deeming and his family moved to South Africa. His movements around that time are unclear, but he was definitely back in England by November 1889, and separated from his wife and children, who lived in another city.

Deeming bigamously married Helen Matheson in 1890, and deserted her shortly after the honeymoon. He visited his wife, gave her some money and told he was going to South America and would send for her and the children once he’d settled. Before he left he conned some jewelers in Hull; as a result, he was arrested upon his arrival in Montevideo, Uruguay and sent back to England to serve nine months in the clink.

In 1891, after his release from prison, Deeming took the name “Albert Williams” and leased a house in the village of Rainhill. A woman and several children were seen visiting him; he claimed they were his sister and her children.

The woman and children disappeared — off to an extended holiday, Deeming said. A short time later, complaining that the drains were defective, Deeming had the floor of his house re-concreted.

In fact, the “sister” was his first wife Marie and the “nieces” and “nephews” his own children — Bertha, 9, Marie, 7, Sidney, 5, and Leala, 18 months. And in fact, they were “vacationing” permanently, under the concrete floor. Authorities believe he killed them on or about July 26, 1891.

By that time, Deeming was already courting Emily Lydia Mather. They married on September 22 and by December 1891 had up and moved to Melbourne.

Emily didn’t make it past Christmas before Deeming had her entombed under the fireplace.

In January 1892, Deeming moved to Sydney. On the way he met a delightful young lady named Kate Rousenfell. He gave her several expensive gifts, including jewelry he’d stolen while he was in Melbourne, and proposed marriage. She agreed and said she would join him in Western Australia when he moved there.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Miss Rousenfell was cheated of her bridegroom by Deeming’s March 11 arrest for Emily’s murder.

Emily’s body had been discovered on March 3, after the house’s owner, investigating his new tenant’s complaints of a strange smell, raised the hearthstone. Her throat had been cut and her skull was fractured. When Deeming was taken into custody, he had some of her things with him, including her prayer book.

The murder case received extensive publicity and when those back in England heard of it, they decided to have a look at Deeming’s former home in Rainhill. There they dug up the bodies of Marie and the four children.

At his trial, Deeming claimed insanity and brain damage from epilepsy and tertiary syphilis, and said his dead mother’s spirit had ordered him to commit the murders.

He told the jury that Marie wasn’t dead and had, in fact, left him for another man. In the three weeks between the verdict and the hanging he penned his biography and some bad poetry. English publishers offered him £1,000 for the rights to his writings, but the Australian government had them all destroyed.

There have been suggestions, in Deeming’s time and ours, that he was the serial killer Jack the Ripper, who slaughtered and mutilated a handful of London prostitutes in 1888. The fact that evidence indicates Deeming was in South Africa at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders hasn’t stopped the speculation. He allegedly told his cellmates he was the Ripper, but when asked directly by the authorities, he refused to answer yes or no.

Deeming’s skull and death mask are still on display in the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum.

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1856: Casey and Cora, by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee

1 comment May 22nd, 2012 John Putnam

Gold attracts all kinds of people but has a particular allure to crooks and corrupt politicians. When gold was found in California they flowed in from all over the world. Soon the gamblers and thugs had the run of San Francisco. Politicians and judges were bought and paid for. Crime went unpunished. (Usually.)

At the same time San Francisco was growing fast, and was filled with the flimsiest, most flammable wooden buildings imaginable. By 1850 huge fires began to rake the city and while they leveled block after block criminals would loot the homes and businesses of the good citizens who were out trying to fight the flames.

The first vigilance committee formed in 1851 after the fifth fire simply because the city government would do nothing to protect the people. The committee, made up of most of the leading citizens and with the backing of almost every honest person, hung a few men and chased a lot more out of town. Within months things improved dramatically and the committee disbanded.

But it’s hard to keep crooks that are in cahoots with corrupt politicians under control for long and by 1855 things were in terrible shape once more. Gold production was down, voting fraud was rampant, banks and business failed, a city supervisor slipped out of town just before his imminent arrest for a major real estate scam involving city money and a pier we now know as Fisherman’s Wharf.

James King of William, a once well-known banker who had lost everything in the collapse of 1855 was now running a small newspaper, The Evening Bulletin, devoted to exposing the corruption in the city. King was fearless in his reporting and ruthless but impartial in his editorials.

Yet things were still a mess in 1856 when the gambler, Charles Cora, took his doxy, a high powered and wealthy Madame called Belle, to the theater. By her presence she offended the young and ambitious US Marshal Richardson and a heated dispute arose between the two men. Then, days later, after that dispute was resumed in a local saloon, Cora shot Richardson in the chest in cold blood at point blank range.

King denounced the city officials who were holding Cora for trial, saying that the man could not be found guilty of even such a blatant crime in a city as corrupt as San Francisco. And as King predicted, amid charges of bribery, the jury in the trial of Charles Cora could not reach a verdict and Cora had escaped his punishment for murder. King then went after James P. Casey, a city supervisor, and exposed him as having once been a prisoner in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.

Casey was incensed and on May 14th stormed into the offices of the Bulletin and protested loudly. King ordered him out. Casey went but waited just up the street. An hour later, when King left for the day, Casey walked up to him in the middle of Montgomery Street and shot him down with a Navy Colt.

The news spread fast. Tens of thousands of people soon gathered.

Casey, joined by his powerful friends, went straight to the jail where Cora was still held for his own protection. Soon the crowd arrived. The local militia was called in to guard the place and there was no trouble that night. The next morning members of the old Committee of Vigilance met and by the time King died on May 20th a new committee had been formed and already had 3,500 members.

By now most of the militia sided with the vigilantes, so when the committee marched in mass to the jail and surrounded it, the jailers soon were soon persuaded to turn Casey over. A short time later the committee returned for Cora. The prisoners were taken to the committee’s headquarters, known as Fort Gunnybags, on Sacramento Street and held there under guard.

Both men were appointed lawyers and put on trial by the vigilantes. Each was convicted with a unanimous verdict.

On May 22nd they were hanged from short platforms extending from second floor windows of Fort Gunnybags before an enormous crowd of San Franciscans who filled the streets, buildings and roof tops all around. The Committee of Vigilance continued to operate until they were convinced that all corrupt politicians and crooks had been purged from city. This resulted in a wholesale change of the political power in San Francisco.

John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, an exciting tale of the early California gold rush. His rich history of that incredible era at can be found at mygoldrushtales.com.

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