Archive for March, 2013

1923: Konstanty Romuald Budkiewicz, Catholic priest in the USSR

1 comment March 31st, 2013 Headsman

Late the night of March 31-April 1, which was in 1923 the dark between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the Catholic priest Konstanty Budkiewicz (Konstantin Budkevich) was shot in the cellars of Lubyanka.

Born to a Polish family in present-day Latvia, Budkiewicz (English Wikipedia link | Polish) went to seminary in St. Petersburg. He was in that same city, now a 50-year-old vicar-general, when the Bolshevik Revolution shook Petrograd.

Given the Bolsheviks’ anti-clericalism, this was bound to be a trying position: Catholic clergy, especially of relative prominence, faced intermittent harassment. The outlander Latin rite and any Pole’s hypothetical association with Russia’s ancient geopolitical foe only exacerbated the situation.

Matters came to a head with the March 13, 1923 arrest (Polish link) of a number of Catholic clergy. In the ensuing days, most would be convicted and sentenced to death at a show trial on the grounds of “inciting rebellion by superstition.” To be charged with “inciting rebellion by superstition” is pretty much to stand condemned for it, one would think.

New York Herald correspondent Francis McCullagh, who was present in the courtroom, would later publish his observations of the proceedings in The Bolshevik Persecution of Christianity. The proseutor, McCullagh wrote,

launched into an attack on religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. “The Catholic Church,” he declared, “has always exploited the working classes.” When he demanded the Archbishop’s death, he said, “All the Jesuitical duplicity with which you have defended yourself will not save you from the death penalty. No Pope in the Vatican can save you now.” …As the long oration proceeded, the Red Procurator worked himself into a fury of anti-religious hatred. “Your religion”, he yelled, “I spit on it, as I do on all religions, — on Orthodox, Jewish, Mohammedan, and the rest.” “There is not law here but Soviet Law,” he yelled at another stage, “and by that law you must die.”

Although information about anti-Christian hostility in the USSR tended to reach the wider world in fragmentary form only, there was an outcry in the western world over this trial’s condemnation of Budkiewicz’s boss, Archbishop Jan Cieplak, as well as that of Monsgnor Budkiewicz. International pressure would ultimately save one of those men … but only one.

Cieplak’s death sentence was commuted, and in 1924 he was even released and allowed to leave for Poland. He died in the United States in 1926.

Budkiewicz made do with grace of the celestial kind. He was whisked from his cell late on the 31st, and shot sometime overnight in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Soviet authorities were so tight-lipped and obfuscatory about his situation that the pope prayed publicly in St. Peter’s later that same day for Budkiewicz’s life to be spared. Only several days later was the accomplished fact of Budkiewicz’s execution openly confirmed.

The Polish poet Kazimiera lllakowiczówna dedicated a verse to Budkiewicz, titled The story of the Moscow martyrdom.

Budkiewicz is being investigated by the present-day Catholic church for possible beatification. (Archbishop Cieplak is, too.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Russia,Shot,Uncertain Dates,USSR

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1883: Emeline Meaker, child abuser, first woman hanged in Vermont

2 comments March 30th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1883, Emeline Lucy Meaker was hanged for the murder of her nine-year-old sister-in-law and ward, Alice. She was the first woman executed in Vermont and almost the last; the only other one was in 1905, when Mary Mabel Rogers was hanged after killing her husband for his insurance.

Alice’s father died in 1873 and her impoverished mother sent her and her brother Henry to live in an overcrowded poorhouse. There, the little girl was reportedly sexually abused. Others noted that she was “a timid, shrinking child—of just that disposition that seems to invite, and is unable to resist—persecution.”

In 1879, Alice and Henry got a chance for a better life when their much older half-brother* Horace (described by crime historian Harold Schechter as a “perpetually down-at-heels farmer”) agreed to take them in for a lump sum of $400. However, Horace’s wife, Emeline, was unhappy at this extra burden. She referred to Alice as “little bitch” and “that thing.”

Schechter writes of the killer in his book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of:

Married to Horace when she was eighteen, forty-five-year-old Emeline was (according to newspapers at the time) a “coarse, brutal, domineering woman,” a “perfect virago,” a “sullen, morose, repulsive-looking creature.” To be sure, these characterizations were deeply colored by the horror provoked by her crime. Still, there is little doubt that … Emeline’s grim, hardscrabble life had left her deeply embittered and seething with suppressed rage — “malignant passions” (in the words of one contemporary) that would vent themselves against her helpless [sister-in-law].

Young Alice’s life, however difficult it may have been before, became hell after she went to live with her half-brother and his family.

She was forced to do more and heavier chores than she was capable of, and for the slightest reason, Emeline would beat her horribly with a broom, a stick or whatever else was at hand.

Soon Alice’s sister-in-law dropped the pretense of punishment and simply hit Alice whenever she felt like it. Emeline was quite literally deaf to the little girl’s screams, as she had a severe hearing impairment. So did Horace.

Some of the neighbors later said they could hear the child’s cries from half a mile away, and Emeline had no compunctions about abusing Alice in front of visitors. Everyone in in their small community of Duxbury was aware of what was going on, but no one bothered to do anything about it until it was too late.

Less than a year after Alice’s arrival, Emeline decided to do away with her. The crime is reported in detail in Volume 16 of the Duxbury Historical Society’s newsletter.

Emeline convinced her twenty-year-old “weak minded” and “not over bright” son, Lewis Almon Meaker, to help. He later said his mother had persuaded him that Alice would be “better off dead” and that “she wasn’t a very good girl; no one liked her.”

Emeline’s first suggestion was to take Alice out into the mountain wilderness and leave her there to die, but Almon thought this was too risky. Instead, on the night of April 23, 1880, Almon and Emeline woke up Alice, shoved a sack over her head and carried her to the carriage Almon had hired in advance. They drove to a remote hill and forced Alice to drink strychnine from her own favorite mug, which her mother had given her.

Twenty minutes later, the child’s death agonies ceased and Almon buried her in a thicket outside the town of Stowe.

Emeline and Almon, people who had been concerned about the riskiness of a previous murder plot, didn’t bother to get their stories straight about the unannounced disappearance of their charge, so when the neighbors asked where Alice had gone their contradictory explanations for her disappearance raised suspicions.

On April 26, a police officer subjected both mother and son to questioning. Almon didn’t last long before he broke down and confessed. He led the deputy sheriff to the burial site and they disinterred Alice’s remains, still visibly bruised from her last thrashing. Because the deputy’s buggy was small, Almon had to hold Alice’s corpse upright to keep it from falling out during the three-hour journey back to Roxbury.

That must have been some ride.

Emeline and Almon were both charged with murder. Each defendant tried to put as much blame as possible on the other, but both were ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. Almon’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, but Emeline’s was upheld in spite of years of appeals and a try at feigning madness.

Her violent tantrums, attempts at arson, and attacks on the prison staff didn’t convince anyone she was crazy — they merely alienated her family and others who might have otherwise supported her. Once she realized she wasn’t fooling anybody, she calmed down and passed her remaining days quietly knitting in her cell.

She was hanged at 1:30 p.m., 35 months after the murder.

On the day of her execution she asked to see the gallows. The sheriff explained to her how it worked and she declared, “Why, it’s not half as bad as I thought.” For the occasion — she had a crowd of 125 witnesses to impress — she wore a black cambric with white ruffles.

The not-half-bad gallows snapped Emeline Meaker’s neck, but it still took her twelve minutes to die. Emeline wanted her body returned to her husband, but Horace refused to accept it and it was buried in the prison cemetery.

Ten years after his mother’s execution, Almon died in prison of tuberculosis.

* Some reports say Alice was Horace’s niece rather than his half-sister.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA,Vermont,Women

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1944: Roger Bushell and others for the Great Escape

17 comments March 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.


Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.

South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.

But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.

He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.

Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.

In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.

In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.

Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.

We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.

-Jimmy James

One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.

Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.

Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.

In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)

A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.

And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**

Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.

For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50″.

* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.

** Meanwhile, Germany menacingly warned POWs that further escape attempts would likely cost a man his life. (Image from this page.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Escapes,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1913: Floyd and Claude Allen, for the Carroll County courthouse massacre

Add comment March 28th, 2013 Headsman

Today is the centennial of the electrocution of Floyd Allen, the wealthy patriarch of a Virginia clan, and his son Claude — for an astounding shootout right in the Carroll County (Va.) courthouse.

Before the unpleasantness, Allen was for Carroll County gentleman farmer, prosperous shopkeep, moonshine-distiller, and political operator. He was also a guy with a violent reputation.

That’s him on the right, but maybe you want to picture an Old Dominion Don Corleone instead.

“The worst man of the clan,” said a local judge who suspected that Allen had dodged other brushes with the law by intimidating witnesses. “Overbearing, vindictive, high tempered, brutal, with no respect for law and little or no regard for human life.”

Mix a guy like that with an innocent rustic harvest-produce ritual and bloodshed is bound to follow.

Matters began for the 50-something Allen with teenage hormones at a local cornshucking. Custom dictated that finding a lucky red ear of corn would entitle the corn-shucker who drew it to a kiss from any girl of his choice. A youth named Wesley Edwards, nephew to Floyd Allen, drew a red ear.

The girl he kissed happened to have a boyfriend. So here we go.

The next day, the jealous beau got his by jumping Wesley Edwards, which drew Wesley’s brother into the brawl, which led to assault and weapons charges against the Edwards boys. They were arrested over the border in North Carolina, but en route to returning them to the Hillsville, Va., lockup, Floyd Allen stopped the cart and liberated his kin. Allen would say later that he didn’t intend this to go full-outlaw; rather, his lordly sense of prerogatives was offended to see the boys tied up instead of treated with dignity, and a political foe of a sheriff rushing to get them in manacles when Allen full intended to post bail for them.

And that led to the March 1912 trial of Floyd Allen for interfering with an officer of the law. Allen was convicted on this count and sentenced to one year in prison.

“Gentlemen,” replied our put-upon paterfamilias to this sentence. “I ain’t a-goin’.”*

Literally, this is what Floyd Allen got up and said in court in direct response to the judge’s delivery of sentence moments before.

And with this, the Carroll County courthouse turned into a shooting gallery.

There’s a great deal of after-the-fact argument and finger-pointing about who started this mess. It must have been mayhem: the sheriff plunked Allen, who collapsed on his attorney; Allen fired back with the revolver that he was naturally carrying to his own criminal sentencing.

Fears and rumors had circulated that exactly this sort of thing might go down if the surly Floyd Allen drew jail time, so quite a lot of attendees in the crowded courtroom were jittery and packing heat. Now they all started crouching and firing. At least fifty spent rounds were later retrieved from the hall of justice.

When the smoke cleared, the Allen clan had absconded as a gang with the now-fugitive Floyd. Five other people left the room for their coffins: the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the jury foreman, and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen.

Considering the distribution of bodies, that’s less a shootout than a massacre. (pdf)

A massive manhunt brought the Allens in within weeks. This time, jurors nervous of retaliation handed Floyd Allen the death penalty, and a like sentence to his son Claude.** The eventual clemency appeals for the latter would focus on his honorable adherence to the family, complaining that Claude was condemned for doing “no more than any boy would do for an old gray haired Father without a moments [sic] time to consider.” The appeals for the former blamed the sheriff for starting the shootout and the entire affair from the nephews’ arrest on down on political rivalries among Carroll County’s elites. Between these and clemency opponents decrying the “maudlin sentimentality” that proposed to spare these murderers, the standard of Virginia manhood was thoroughly litigated on editorial pages throughout the Commonwealth — indeed, throughout the country, for the astonishing case drained newsprint ink from coast to coast.

And why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” descended from her haunts to appeal for the life of her betrothed, Claude.


From the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, September 13, 1912.
“They were men of the mountains; they were out of the beaten parts of civilization; they were untaught in the ways of the world outside. Their habits and training had led them to adhere to a code of almost primal instincts in many ways; to them the right to do as they pleased regardless of what custom or other people demanded was ingrown. And yet they had never been criminal at heart.” -From a profile of the family in the March 28, 1913 Miami Herald

Gov. William Hodges Mann‘s verdict on all this inclined against the maudlin.

Though the Allens managed a few short delays as their appeals percolated, Mann was steadfast in his refusal to mitigate the crime. The two went to Virginia’s electric chair eleven minutes apart on this date.

All that from a red ear of corn. Incidentally, somewhere in this whole timeline, Floyd’s nephews were themselves sentenced for the original brawl with the boyfriend (long before the shootout, and the resulting serious prison sentences they got for that). Their punishment was 30 and 60 days working the sheriff’s orchard. That, plus the destruction of their family.

A book and a DVD under the title Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy can be had from the Carroll County Historical Society. There’s also an out-of-print 1962 volume, The Courthouse Tragedy, Hillsville, Va.

* Allen had successfully refused to serve a one-hour jail sentence for a 1903 scrape. One measly hour.

** Several other Allens got long prison sentences eventually truncated by executive pardons in the 1920s. Most of their estate was seized and the family generally scattered across the country, far from Carroll County. (Floyd Allen’s brother Jack got into a barroom argument in North Carolina in 1918 about the notorious Hillsville events, and Jack wound up shot dead himself in the dispute.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Politicians,USA,Virginia

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1811: Adam Lyal, highwayman

1 comment March 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1811, Adam Lyal was hanged as a highwayman in Edinburgh.

Adam Lyal went on trial with his brother John on January 3.

John’s counsel went with the insanity defense — you know, the classic; he’d been raving incoherently in prison and seemed not in his right mind. A doctor ruled that John “laboured under a state of idiotism … incapable of knowing the right hand from the left.”

So, despite the jailer’s suspicion that Lyal was simulating (he testified that John Lyal knew a hawk from a handsaw when he was first captured and didn’t start with the crazy talk for a few days), John Lyal was ruled unfit for trial.

That left Adam alone to answer for both. Maybe he should have requested a psychological evaluation too, because he was crazy to go on trial.

In that proceeding, he faced the detailed testimony of Matthew Boyd that on Oct. 25 previous, he was returning from the fair when the pair approached him.

On coming up, one of them laid his arm over the bridle, and having both pistols in their hands, they presented them, and desired him to deliver up his pocketbook, or they would blow his brains out.

Boyd boldly tried to bluff his way out of this at the risk of his life, but the robbers thrashed him until he coughed up a parcel of small notes … and then, most begrudgingly, another £100 of large notes he had stashed in his vest.

He’d relinquished his cash, for now, but this Matthew Boyd was an intrepid soul.

As he had been robbed in broad daylight, Boyd had plenty of time to get to Stirling, procure a warrant, and track Boyd’s assailants all the way to Edinburgh where the next day he finally found them in the streets and personally collared them.

Conclusion: do not rob Matthew Boyd.

Adam Lyal’s defense, considerably less effective than that of his brother, was to argue that the indictment charged a robbery in the shire of Perth, but it was actually done in the county of Stirling.

That … did not help.

Adam Lyal’s unfortunate fate has not precluded his latter-day career as an Edinburgh tour guide with an active Twitter account.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Sleuthing,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Scotland,Theft

1907: Emile Dubois, Valparaiso popular saint

Add comment March 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Emile Dubois was shot in Valparaiso, Chile for murder.

The French-descended Dubois (English Wikipedia link | Spanish) was credited with a string of homicides in Valparaiso spanning 1905-1906. (Although the first murder attributed to him, and the only one he was formally convicted of, was that of an accountant in Santiago.)

The official version of our man’s career is roughly this: in September 1905, he killed a merchant named Reinaldo Tillmanns; in October, he killed another one named Gustavo Titius — robbing both.

The following April, he stabbed the French trader Isodoro Challe, although he did not rob him. In June, he attacked an American dentist in his office, although the dentist fought him off and the assailant fled.

All this was rolled up into the indictment when “Emile Dubois” was finally captured that summer. This was the name he gave, but his Colombian documents were sketchy; his real name might have been Luis Amadeo Brihier Lacroix, or heaven knows what else.

The crime spree alone would be interesting enough for this site, but it’s really the least interesting thing about this unusual man.

Dubois exerted a curious magnetism. He was handsome, certainly, but more than that: he was gracious, impossibly serene in the face of the dangerous charges against him, and his adherence to his innocence was calm and unshakable. Dubois’s intelligence was impossible to miss; he spoke ironically with inspectors, like their fellow-man instead of their prey. “He had ideas above those of a common criminal,” wrote one biographer. (Spanish link)

His long time loose on his crime spree — if indeed the attributed crimes were really all his — had served to direct popular scorn at the police who were unable to locate the criminal. At the same time, the victims in these cases were wealthy foreign merchants, and these “usurers” would have limited purchase on public sympathy as Argentina’s oligarchy faced an unfolding social crisis. (And Valparaiso endured a natural disaster.) Meanwhile, in the courtroom itself, Judge Santa Cruz was so convinced of Dubois’s guilt that he cut a vindictive Javert-like figure hounding the accused to his death.*

Guilty or innocent, the wry and gentlemanly Dubois compared very favorably to the other characters in his drama.

Dubois played the part unerringly to the last, when he declined a blindfold and unpertubedly puffed a cigar as he faced his four-man firing detail with open eyes and the command “¡Ejecutad!”

Dubois’s last statement reasserted his innocence without vitriol or bitterness. “It was necessary that someone be held responsible for these crimes, and that someone was me,” he said. (More Spanish)

Then he died.

And after that Christ-like exit, he lived.

Dubois, who was obviously an utter obscurity prior to his arrest, went on to a surprising posthumous life as a popular folk saint. His brightly-painted grave in Valparaiso is a pilgrimage shrine forever crowded with votive offerings from followers convinced of Dubois’s powers of divine intercession (and, accordingly, his innocence).

* Dubois to the priest sent to confess him before execution: “”You should be taking the judge’s confession, not mine. The judge who ordered my murder. Go inspire his repentance.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Chile,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Myths,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Shot

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1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

1 comment March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Crushed,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Peine forte et dure,Religious Figures,Torture,Women

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1936: George W. Barrett, the first to hang for killing an FBI man

8 comments March 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Kentucky native George W. Barrett was hanged in Lockport, Indiana.

A rather nasty but ordinary enough career criminal specializing in car theft, Barrett also dabbled in murder. According to Keven McQueen’s book Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics, in 1930 he shot to death his elderly mother and his sister (who lingered for an extended time before dying of pneumonia, the consequence of her wounds), but pleaded “self-defense.”

Two juries were unable to reach a verdict.

Minor detail: Barrett’s cousin, Frank Baker, was the prosecutor in that case, and observers noted he appeared rather less than zealous about convicting his relative; the judge even remarked that Baker sounded more like Barrett’s defense attorney.

After his 1931 murder trial, a decidedly ungrateful Barrett allegedly murdered Frank Baker.

At his 1933 trial in that case he got a hung jury again, in spite of the fact that the only relative of his involved in the trial was the victim.

FBI agent Nelson Klein: shot dead in Ohio, but his killer hanged in Indiana.

Third time’s the charm: Barrett finally got his just deserts on December 7, 1935, when he was convicted of murdering FBI Agent Nelson B. Klein. The jurors stayed out for two days, but supposedly they decided on his guilt long before then and only wanted a few more free meals.

Barrett had killed Agent Klein in a shootout on August 14, 1935; before dying, Klein shot back, hitting Barrett in the legs and crippling him. The other agent involved in the gunfight, Donald McGovern, was unscathed and arrested Barrett.

There was an interesting dispute as to which state had jurisdiction over the crime; the agents had been standing in College Corner, Ohio, but the killer fired his shots from a position 22 feet over the Indiana state line. In the end, Indiana got the honors.

A recent federal law had mandated the death sentence for anyone convicted of killing an FBI agent. Barrett was the first to die under the new law; another man who’d murdered two agents in 1934 got a life sentence in Alcatraz.

The leg wounds Barrett suffered in his last shootout never healed. He attended his trial in a wheelchair and ultimately had to be carried to the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Indiana,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1860: William Fee, the only person hanged in Wayne County

3 comments March 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1860, William Fee became the only person ever executed in Wayne County, New York.

Fee’s alleged victim is not distinguished by a name, at least not one known to Fee’s prosecutors. The anonymous woman turned up dead September 26, 1859 on Wayne County’s old Montezuma Turnpike. She had been strangled, the coroner said — and ravished.

Though she was a stranger, the victim had been seen in the area inquiring about employment. Fee and another man named Muldoon had been observed following her the day previous, and that “following” was cast in a sinister light by their now-unknown whereabouts. Both men were laborers working on an enlargement of the Erie Canal around Lyons, N.Y.

Fee was eventually arrested in New York City; Muldoon, in Scranton, Pa. We’ll return to Muldoon later.

Fee and his ill-favored “Hibernian countenance” stood trial from January 30 to February 3, 1860. “Seats were at a premium in the court room and in the gallery behind the curtains there was a crowd of ladies, listening breathlessly to the testimony,” ran a retrospective from 1913. “During the noon hour, seats were bargained for and sold at 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.”

And though he maintained a superficial calm when the jury returned a guilty verdict against him — “Damn tough, but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it” — William Fee broke down sobbing when the judge finally sentenced him.

The kid came from a working-class family and had a scrappy reputation. It wasn’t clear as he approached execution that he was handling it with the gravity expected for the occasion by right-thinking gentlemen. Then there was the worry for his eternal salvation: born of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents, he was essentially irreligious and indifferent to a parade of ministers who called upon his cell. (Fee accepted the ministrations of a couple of Catholic priests in his very last hours.)

While clerics kneaded the hard clay of Fee’s soul, municipal officials took a chisel to logistics. Since this was the first (and last) hanging in these parts, the equipment had to be obtained on loan: they borrowed the upward-jerking gallows recently used to execute Ira Stout in upstate New York.*

The gallows was erected in one of the small halls of the jail … four upright posts twelve feet high and five feet apart. Across the top was an oak timber projecting two feet or more beyond the frame. At the front end, above where the prisoner was to stand was a grooved wheel or pully; and another was inserted in the timber over the centre of the frame. The main rope ran over these rollers, one end falling in front, to which the halter was attached, the other dropping to the centre of the gallows frame, where heavy weights were attached. These weights, in all 254 pounds, were suspended by a small cord passing through the main timber above and over it to a pin. The weights had a fall of perhaps eight feet. When the cord was severed by a blow of the axe, the weights fell and jerked the main rope running over the grooved wheels. In order that there should be no failure, Sheriff Snedaker had the gallows put up in the court house and fully tested before removing it to the jail. (New York Herald, April 3, 1860)

Fee came to this device still asserting his innocence, but also asserting that Muldoon wasn’t involved. Don’t worry if those seem a bit at odds; the execution party was confused enough to require clarification, too. Cut him some slack: those 254 pounds of weights weren’t going to cut him any.

The hanging went off without difficulty and, whether influenced by Fee’s parting attempt at exoneration or otherwise, Muldoon was never ultimately brought to trial. The evidence against him being unsatisfactory, he was released some months later.

William Fee’s afterlife — apart from this blog post — is allegedly spent haunting his old Lyons Jail (today, the Wayne County Museum).

* From reports, Wayne County didn’t return the gallows: it was eventually scrapped (someone made a chair out of part of it), and the Lyons Republican nicked the hanging-weight to use as a doorstop.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,The Supernatural,USA

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1882: George Parrott, future footwear

3 comments March 22nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1881, George Parrott, a cattle rustler popularly known as Big Nose George, was lynched in Rawlins, Wyoming.

His story doesn’t end with his death, however: as his Wikipedia entry notes, Parrott was notable for “Banditry, Murder, being made into a pair of shoes.” Oh, and being pickled.

The series of events that lead to Parrott’s death began on August 19, 1878, when he and his gang tried to wreck a train near Medicine Bow, Wyoming so they could rob it. They loosened a rail and waited patiently, but an alert section foreman spotted the loose rail and notified railroad authorities, who came and fixed it before the train arrived.

Realizing the law would be after them, Parrott’s gang fled toward Elk Mountain and hid in Rattlesnake Canyon, waiting to ambush the posse they knew would be coming.

As soon as the lawmen were within their rifle sights, the bandits opened fire. Parrott killed Tip Vincent, a Union Pacific Railroad agent; one of the other fugitives, “Dutch” Charley Bates, killed Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield. The gang then fled and hid out in Montana for a span, eventually reaching Canada — and all the while continuing their criminal ways.

Parrott couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his outlaw exploits and bragged everywhere he went. Inevitably, someone who’d heard one of his stories went to Rawlins and happened to mention the hook-nosed man who’d tried to derail a train, then killed two people when their plan failed.

“Dutch” Charley Bates was arrested in Green River, Wyoming in December 1878 and put on a train bound for Rawlins to face trial. Ironically, it was the same train he’d tried to derail earlier that year.

But Bates never made it to Rawlins: when the train made a stop at Carbon City, a group of masked vigilantes overpowered Bates’s guards, hauled him off the train, forced him to confess to his crimes and then hoisted him up on a rope to slowly strangle to death.

Parrott remained at large and the reward for his capture grew to $2,000 before his big mouth got him into trouble again. He and his gang had held up several stagecoaches and pulled off a particularly lucrative job in July 1880. He bragged about it to a lady friend, who told other people, and eventually word reached the ears of the Rawlins sheriff. Within hours he was under arrest.

In a repeat of the Bates lynching, a posse forced Parrott from his Rawlins-bound train in Carbon City. R. Michael Wilson, in his book Frontier Justice in the Wild West, writes what happened next:

They escorted him onto the station platform, put a noose around his neck, yanked him up, then lowered him and asked for a full confession. When he hesitated the men pulled him up several times and then promised that if he confessed, he would be given a fair trial — but if he did not confess, he would be hung. Parrott talked, and once he began, he gave every detail of his various criminal ventures, some of which were quite a surprise to the vigilantes. The mob, true to their word, then returned the prisoner to the custody of Sheriff Rankin.

That’s touching behavior for a vigilante mob, but it sure feels like Carbon City could stand to tighten up its railroad security.

At any rate, Parrott was tried for Tip Vincent’s murder in the fall of 1880, convicted, and sentenced to death.

However, on March 20, 1881, thirteen days before he was scheduled to hang, he made a desperate escape attempt. Though Parrott managed to knock Sheriff Rankin unconscious, Mrs. Rankin foiled the breakout by locking up the cells before Parrott could get out. Extra guards were assigned to watch him after that.

As Wilson records,

Sheriff Rankin asked the townsmen to wait the short time remaining before the prisoner was to be legally hanged, but the general opinion was that the sheriff had taken enough abuse from the prisoner and that Parrott might yet escape if left to await his fate on April 2. On March 22 at 10:55 p.m., a party of thirty masked men went to the jail and removed Parrott. They marched him to the telegraph pole … A rope was placed over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, the noose was secured around the prisoner’s neck, and Parrott was forced to stand upon a barrel. Parrott begged piteously to be shot and cried out that it was cruel to hang him, but his pleas were ignored.

They kicked the barrel out from under him, but it was too short: the rope and Parrott’s neck stretched enough so that his toes touched the ground.

The mob cut him down and went and got a ladder. Parrott climbed it and said he would jump off and break his neck, but as far as the vigilantes were concerned, that was too good for him: they pulled the ladder away instead, and he slowly strangled to death, tearing off one of his ears in the process.

Drs. Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne conducted the autopsy, examined Parrott’s brain, and could find no apparent abnormalities. Osborne then removed a large piece of skin from the dead man’s chest, kept the skullcap, and put the rest of the body in a whiskey barrel full of saline solution, effectively pickling it. The barrel was buried without ceremony, and Dr. Osborne had the skin tanned. He sent the leather to a shoemaker, who made him a pair of shoes with it.

Dr. Osborne was disappointed that Parrott’s nipples weren’t on the tips of the toes like he’d requested (!!!), but you can’t have everything you want in life.

He wore the human leather shoes on special occasions, including at his inaugural ball when he was elected governor of Wyoming in 1890. The skullcap he gave to his fifteen-year-old female assistant, Lillian Heath, who used it variously as a doorstop and an ashtray. (She would grow up to become the first female doctor in Wyoming.)

Parrott’s pickled remains were dug up at a construction site in 1950, and identified after some confusion. His skull, as well as the shoes, are now on display at the Carbon County Museum.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Wyoming

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