Archive for June, 2013

1278: Pierre de La Brosse, “out of spite and envy”

Add comment June 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1278, humiliatingly dressed like a buffoon, Pierre de La Brosse was strung up at Montfaucon without benefit of trial.

De La Brosse (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a court figure of the petty nobility.

He cut his teeth — and a holy beard — as a surgeon and barber in the court of Saint Louis. When Louis died on crusade in 1270, Philip the Bold succeeded to the throne. Philip was tight with Pierre, so this seemed like great news for the chamberlain — and indeed, de La Brosse advanced rapidly with the new king’s patronage in wealth and influence.

The power of this Touraine arriviste did not fail to attract the enmity of the realm’s hereditary lords. As their grandchildren would do in Enguerrand de Marigny‘s time, they nursed their resentments and awaited only their chance.

King Philip’s marriage in 1274 to Marie of Brabant* gave them that chance.

His influence eclipsed by the new bride, de La Brosse developed a dangerous rivalry with the royal consort. When Philip’s firstborn son by his previous marriage and the heir to the French throne died suspiciously in 1276, Pierre de La Brosse allegedly made bold to suggest that the new queen herself might have poisoned the youth off.**

Philip “investigated” this by sending emissaries to consult a clairvoyant who, knowing she was speaking to representatives of the royal family, gave a judiciously positive appraisal of the queen, leaving de La Brosse on very tenuous footing indeed. The barons cut that footing out from under their foe a few months later when they produced documents, likely forged, implicating de La Brosse in a treasonable arrangement with the Spanish crown. De La Brosse was imprisoned for six months and condemned without a regular judicial proceeding: he has the unenviable distinction of being the first victim of an extraordinary royal commission in France. That commission destroyed the evidence (or “evidence”) in the case, but to judge from the positive appraisal de La Brosse enjoyed from chroniclers the popular sentiment for his innocence was widespread.

Pierre de La Brosse is among the several French royal counselors who are sometimes apocryphally said to have built the Montfaucon gallows only to hang upon them. The last word on him (and the more interesting trivia) belongs to Dante, who stationed the man in Purgatory as one who was unjustly slain but without opportunity to cleanse his soul with a last repentance.

I saw the soul
cleft from its body out of spite and envy —
not, so it said, because it had been guilty —
I mean Pier de la Brosse,
and may the Lady of Brabant
while she’s still in this world, watch
her ways—or end among a sadder flock

* Not to be confused with the Bavarian princess of that name who was put to death for adultery.

** Another way to interpret this: poisoning suspicions that were afoot generally came to be ascribed specifically to de La Brosse.

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Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1944: A day in mass executions in Axis Europe

Add comment June 29th, 2013 Headsman

June 29, 1944, saw several noteworthy mass executions around Axis western Europe.

France: Seven Jewish hostages for the assassination of Philippe Henriot

Poet and journalist Philippe Henriot (English Wikipedia entry | French), the “French Goebbels”, was the Vichy government’s able chief propagandist.

On June 28, 1944, Henriot was assassinated by Maquis operatives disguised as milice paramlitaries.

Incensed, the real milice this morning gathered seven Jews already held in prison as hostages at Rillieux, drove them to the cemetery, and shot them one by one.

(Paul Touvier, who orchestrated this retaliatory execution, managed to stay underground until 1989. At his 1994 war crimes trial, he claimed that the Germans wanted 30 hostages killed, and therefore what he actually did was “save 23 human lives.” Touvier was convicted on the charge of crimes against humanity.)


Italy: Massacres in San Pancrazio, Cornia, and Civitella

As dawn broke this date, German soldiers retreating from liberated Rome fell upon several Tuscan villages.

German columns had been beset by partisans on the way, and standard operating procedure was to retaliate against partisans indirectly, by killing civilians — as in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine caves. This vengeance was visited on the three towns: over 200 civilians were summarily executed on June 29, 1944.

“My mother later said she went to speak to my father,” remembered one San Pancrazio man. “A soldier turned her back and told her they were taking him to be tortured. She and my father both cried.” The father and those taken with him were shot in the basement of a farmhouse.

Caution: Graphic video.

The towns themselves have kept this date in remembrance, but the massacres were swept under the rug in the postwar settlement as Italy, Germany, and their former western enemies realigned for the Cold War. Only in the 21st century have they come to wider attention, when the discovery of secret archives documenting the atrocities enabled an Italian court to convict an aged German soldier in absentia.

There’s a CNN documentary on these events focusing particularly on San Pancrazio. Called “Terror in Tuscany”, it may be viewable here or here, depending on your location.


Denmark: The Hvidsten Group

The Danish resistance group named for a Jutland tavern was betrayed by a captured Brit under torture.

S. P. KRISTENSEN * 20. 8. 1887
ALBERT IVERSEN * 28. 9. 1896
NIELS N. KJÆR * 2. 4. 1903
JOH KJÆR HANSEN * 2. 4. 1907
HENNING ANDERSEN * 16. 7. 1917
MARIUS FIIL * 21. 6. 1893
PETER SØRENSEN * 8. 6. 1919
NIELS FIIL * 12. 6. 1920

1944 on the 29 June
They fell before German bullets
Precious is their memory to Denmark

Hvidsten Group stone photo is a (cc) image from Hansjorn.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Italy,Jews,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1776: Thomas Hickey, plotting against George Washington

3 comments June 28th, 2013 Headsman

“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”

-Continental Army surgeon Solomon Drowne, July 13, 1776

On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.

That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine wrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.

George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.

Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.

In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.

Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out of prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.

Sadly, Ketcham’s full memorandum has been lost, and as the ensuing trial records are circumspect the “plot” or “plots” in question are a bit of a historical muddle. Roughly, there are two discernible thrusts:

  • A fifth-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
  • A plot against the person of George Washington himself.

Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.

Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.

“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”

The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.

No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.

Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.

The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.

-Washington’s general order, June 28, 1776

Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.

Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)

The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.

Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.

It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.

* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.

** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,New York,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1794: Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who defended Nero

1 comment June 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.

Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.

The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.

Linguet was an Enlightenment philosophe at the start of his public life, and made an early name for himself when his forceful intervention in the case of the Chevalier de la Barre helped save La Barre’s friends from sharing his fate.

He soon apostatized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical” philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.

He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.

Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since he had scarcely incurred his sufferings on behalf of the masses.

Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.

An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.

A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.

* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they

are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Public Executions,Treason

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1668: A Dutch suicide, posthumously gibbeted

2 comments June 26th, 2013 Headsman

A man … who was in the habit of asking his wife for money to buy brandy, would on her refusal say that he would go hang himself. When on 23 June 1668 he again asked for two pennies to buy brandy, his wife said she had no money, whereupon he replied, “I will hang myself or may the devil take me.” His wife replied, “Do whatever you like, you always say that,” and went back to her cleaning. Shortly thereafter, she found that her husband had hanged himself in their home. She then called for the neighbors, who have all made declarations and given evidence. On a charge by the bailiff, his corpse has been taken to the Volewijk on 26 June 1668 and hanged on a gibbet.

This excerpt, via Machiel Bosman’s chapter “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam” in From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe, represents the last documented case of the Dutch posthumously punishing a suicide.

Well … a certain class of suicide.

It seems that Dutch law from about the 16th century, and certainly in the 17th century, began drawing a categorical distinction between suicides driven by madness or despair, and those ob conscientiam criminis — criminals who took their life to cheat the law.

Posthumous execution was inflicted upon the latter all the way up until the French Revolution reached the Low Countries in 1795. Bosman, for example, notes the case of a thief gibbeted in Amsterdam in 1792 after he hanged himself in jail. For non-criminal suicides, “punishment” was more typically a silent night-time burial, perhaps in unconsecrated ground: a meaningful deterrent for at least some of the living, but very distinct from judicial infamy. The widower of a 1532 suicide had even successfully appealed Amsterdam’s attempt to levy a punitive fine on the estate.

Hans Bontemantel, one of Amsterdam’s sheriffs, was incensed by the archaic sentence executed in 1668: “I am not responsible for this,” he noted in the margin of his summary. “And it is against the law.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Netherlands,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions

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2003: He Xiuling, Ma Qingxui, Li Juhua and Dai Donggui

3 comments June 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2003, four women all condemned for drug offenses were among a group executed by shooting at Wuhan, in central China. This mass execution (conducted in secret but preceded by a humiliating public trial) was scheduled around the June 26 International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. China has a very long history of looking askance at drug-dealing, and it usually uses the prelude to June 26 for some pointed, well-publicized executions.

In 2003, photographer Yan Yuhong spent 12 hours with this quartet of women on the eve and morning of their executions at Detention Center No. 1. Only years later did the photographs get out: a moving glimpse of ordinary people under the pall of death and the guards and prisoners around them, they made worldwide news in 2011. Apparently their distribution in 2003 was quashed on authorities’ concerns that they were a bit too moving for the big anti-drug message.

Select images follow; the entire series can be perused here or here, and in poignant timeline form here.

He Xiuling

He Xiuling is the most immediately recognizable among them, a pudgy 25-year-old who looks inordinately mirthful in many pictures, but sobs openly just before she is led away to be shot. Follow-up reporting paints the picture of a simple country girl lured by a boyfriend into being a drug mule. She was evidently led to believe, up until the last, that her sentence would be commuted: “I’ll still only be 40 when I’m free!”

Had she been spared, she would be 35 now.


She thought the white top made her look “too fat”, and a guard kindly provided a black one.


Several pictures how He Xiuling smiling and laughing. Here, she enjoys breakfast on the morning of the 25th. She has about four hours to live.


Weeping moments before her execution.

Ma Qingxui

The oldest of the women and seemingly the only one of the quartet who could be characterized as something more than a small-time mule, 49-year-old Ma Qingxui from Baokang county of Hubei province was on her fourth conviction for smuggling more than 8 lbs. of narcotics.


Dressed all in red, Ma Qingxui donates her clothes to another inmate.


Ma Qingxiu being escorted out of the detention center for the execution grounds at 7:21 a.m.

Li Juhua and Dai Donggui

The prisoners least seen in the series and those of whom the least has been reported in the west.


An ordinary (non-condemned) prisoner paints Li Juhua’s toenails on the morning of the latter’s execution.


She dictates her last will and testament to a fellow-prisoners.


On the evening of June 24th, Dai Donggui carefully folds the execution clothes a guard has purchased for her.


A last supper. Reportedly, McDonald’s food is routinely served at the facility for this occasion.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Women

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1890: A quadruple hanging in Jim Crow America

Add comment June 24th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Close to midnight on this date in 1890, four convicted murderers — three of them black and one white — were hanged on the gallows inside the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They were Edward Carr, 28, Parker Harris, 30, Hardy Ballard, 45, and Frank Brenish, 36.

Carr, who was half-black, had murdered his estranged wife Sallie in broad daylight on the street in Memphis on November 9, 1889. Edward Carr wanted to move to Mississippi and Sallie did not, and she had left him and moved in with a woman friend. When Edward saw his wife and her friend walking down the street, he said, “Sallie, I am going to kill you,” and then shot her.

She ran away, but he chased after her and shot her three more times. Sallie Carr died in her friend’s arms.

Edward surrendered to the police three days later, and his lawyer had to persuade him not to plead guilty to murder.

At his trial he said, “I do not know why I killed her. It was not because she offended me. We had lived happily together … I loved her so well, and she would not go with me.” Offering no defense, he was accordingly convicted on December 17, six weeks after his crime.

Harris had also killed his wife, Letha “Lettie” Harris, on the street in front of witnesses. Lettie was an “octoroon”, a now-outdated term for someone who is of mixed race and one-eighth black, seven-eighths white.

Like the Carrs, the Harrises were estranged and Lettie was living apart from her husband. On August 18, 1889, said husband encountered her riding in a buggy with several women and asked her to come home; Lettie replied that she never wanted to speak to him again.

In response, Parker Harris slashed her throat, then his own. He was able to run from the scene but collapsed several blocks away, weak from blood loss. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to face trial; he too was easily convicted.

Hardy Ballard had killed a streetcar driver, G. Emmett Pinkston, on Christmas Day 1889 after an argument over the nickel fare. Ballard insisted he had paid; Pinkston said he hadn’t, and kicked him off the car. Both parties were armed in the ensuing fight, Ballard with a knife and Pinkston with an iron hook, and Ballard got the better of the streetcar driver and stabbed him to death.

His plea of self-defense at trial was not believed by the jury.

The sole white man, Frank Brenish, was a wife killer just like two of his co-condemned. Mary, his wife of two years, had left him because of his drinking and his failure to support her and his two stepchildren. Frank threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come back to him, and Mary took these threats seriously enough to report them to the police. The cops had a talk with Frank and he promised to leave his wife alone.

Mary remained fearful, however, and when she went out she took her fourteen-year-old daughter, her sister and another man to protect her in case she encountered her husband. They were with her the night the murder was committed: they saw the whole thing.

Frank Brenish’s crime was so similar to Parker Harris’s that there was some speculation the two might have a joint trial: on July 5, 1889 he jumped out of a dark alley and slashed Mary’s throat, nearly decapitating her. Then he cut his own throat. Against the odds, a doctor was able to save Frank’s life, but Mary was beyond help: she had died almost instantly.

All four of the condemned were given copious amounts of alcohol while awaiting their execution, and Brenish got morphine as well. The wound on his throat hadn’t healed and it leaked from time to time. The night before his executed, he made a halfhearted attempt at suicide by slashing his wrist with a makeshift knife.

This was the era of racial apartheid in America, however, and even when men died together, they perhaps might not die together.

The gallows in this instance was built for two, so the natural idea was to hang the four men as two pairs.

Brenish, however, refused to suffer the indignity of being hanged alongside a Negro.

His jailers — and one hardly needs to mention their racial identity — honored his request for a segregated execution and modified the gallows so three people could be hanged at once.

The three black prisoners went first. Brenish died alone, fifteen minutes later. Harris, Ballard and Carr had “clean” hangings and died quickly, after making the usual final statements about their sins and their hope for redemption in Heaven.

When the time came for his racially unsullied death, Brenish was either so drunk or so scared he could barely stand, and he took several more swallows of whiskey while standing on the scaffold. He had severed his trachea when he slashed his throat and could only barely speak above a whisper. When he was asked for a final statement, the best he could come up with was, “They oughtn’t to hang a man when he ain’t in his right mind.”

It often happens that, when a person’s throat was previously cut, the wound will re-open during hanging. This didn’t happen to Harris, but it sure did during Brenish’s execution. Lewis Laska in Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009 has a graphic description of what happened:

The officers had difficulty in placing the handcuffs because of his bandaged wrist. Blood trickled down his white gloves. With the noose and cap placed, he swayed to and fro and had to be held. When the lever was pulled and he dropped there was a pop (his neck was broken) and a hissing sound. The drop had opened the hole in his throat from the attempted suicide on the night of the killing. The hole was large enough to hold a cigar. As he hung, his wrist wound bled profusely.

Gruesome as his death may have appeared, though, Brenish didn’t suffer long. His heart stopped in less than a minute.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Tennessee,USA

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1608: St. Thomas Garnet, protomartyr of Stonyhurst

1 comment June 23rd, 2013 Headsman

June 23, alas, was the end of the line for Jesuit Thomas Garnet, martyred on that date in 1608 for Catholic proselytizing in England.

Now accounted a saint and one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, Garnet was the nephew of Henry Garnet, a priest executed in 1606 for complicity in the November 5, 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Thomas, too — then about 30 years old — was arrested during this same backlash, and put to torture for evidence against uncle Henry. Thomas had been exercising his covert ministry in England since 1599, after slipping English custody once before.

As a result of the Gunpowder Plot hubbub, Thomas Garnet was among 47 Catholic clerics shipped across the English Channel to Flanders in July 1606, where they were warned that they faced execution should they ever again be caught in England.

Thomas Garnet returned, of course. He was betrayed within weeks by another priest named Rouse — whom Garnet publicly forgave while being drawn, hanged, and quartered on this date in 1608. (His faith was treasonable because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance demanded of Catholics post-5.11.)

Garnet’s remains were translated back to his Catholic school on the continent. In more tolerant times, long after Garnet’s death, this English Jesuit school finally had liberty to relocate back to England proper. While Garnet’s relics were destroyed in the French Revolution, he remains the protomartyr (the first martyr associated with a place) of the venerable Stonyhurst College, now in Lancashire.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture

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1934: William Cody Kelley, the first in Colorado’s gas chamber

6 comments June 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, “the most successful and painless [execution] ever conducted at the penitentiary” claimed the life of William Cody Kelley in Colorado’s brand-new gas chamber.

Nevada had debuted this American contribution to the art of killing 10 years before. Colorado was the second state to gas a prisoner, and stood on the leading edge of gas chamber adoption during the 1930s by a half-dozen states in the American West. (… plus North Carolina.)

Kelley was condemned for bludgeoning pig-rancher Russell Browning to death with a pipe, and his otherwise forgettable case was a milestone for a reason besides the method: Kelley was the first executed in the state of Colorado without review by the state supreme court.

The reason? Dead broke, Kelley couldn’t scrape together $200 required for the appeal.

Journalist Lorena Hickok heard of Kelley’s plight and was about to front the cash when she was talked off it, on the grounds that her sticking up for a condemned murderer might throw a politically difficult light on her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt.

Hickok swallowed her principles but a later letter to the First Lady — the two had a voluminous correspondence; they may well have had a romantic relationship, too — drips with Hickok’s regret.

The thing has nearly driven me crazy. How can you have any faith or hope in us if we do things like that in this supposedly enlightened age? … I feel as though we were living in the Dark Ages, and I loathe myself for not having more courage and trying to stop it, no matter what the consequences were. You would have done it. Well — I guess I’d better not think about it any more.

-From One Third Of A Nation, quoted here

While an inconceivable fortune stood between Kelley and his life, the execution materiel — a dozen acid capsules — set Colorado back just 90 cents. Such a pittance bought a killing method so reliable that “there was no cutting out of the victim’s heart, as was done after executions under the State’s old system of hanging, to make sure of death,” a gross if well-founded precaution.

Kelley’s partner in the murder, Lloyd Frady, testified against Kelley (both men claimed the other had committed the murder), and had his own death sentence commuted for his trouble. Frady was eventually released in 1949, but not before he made his fortune behind prison walls selling artsy “curio goods”. Those without the capital, as they say, get the punishment — and in this case, vice versa.

Colorado used the gas chamber for all its executions until 1967.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Colorado,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Milestones,Murder,USA

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1475: Four Jews of Trent

5 comments June 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1475, four members of Trent, Italy’s small Jewish community were burned at the stake outside St. Martin’s Gate for the ritual murder of a Christian child.

One of early modern Europe’s most outstanding “blood libel” instances, the Trent case proceeded from the widespread (among Christians) suspicion that Jews used Christian blood in their blasphemous rituals.

Latent under normal circumstances, belief in the blood libel was, er, liable to actuate a violent anti-Semitic outbreak if a Christian child disappeared in a spot where elites didn’t protect Jews. And in the 15th century, this was an increasingly likely situation.

As R. Po-Chia Hia puts it in Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, “Overnight the Jews, familiar and somewhat intimate neighbors, were transformed into strange murderers.”

This transformation began at the Good Friday service in 1475, when Master Andreas Unferdorben approached the celebrant, Trent’s Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach. Master Unferdorben hadn’t seen his two-year-old son since last night and searches had turned up nothing. He must have been frantic.

Hinderbach ordered the news, and a description of the lost child, promulgated throughout the city. But when that didn’t turn up any new leads, Unferdorben appealed to the podesta to “send his servants to search the houses of the Jews, and see whether it [the lost child] could be found because he had heard in many places in the city that during these holy feast days the Jews want to kidnap Christian children secretly and kill them.” In fact, it was not such a general suspicion as that. Andreas Unferdorben had been specifically advised to look in the Jews’ houses by a shady character named der Schweizer, the Swiss.*

Trent was a mixed city of Italians and German immigrants, and both languages could be heard in the streets. (Both were used by various different parties in the Simon of Trent investigation.) Its Jewish population, however, consisted of a mere three households — the extended families of Samuel, Tobias, and Engel. Samuel, an emigrant moneylender from Nuremberg, had the largest Jewish household with nine family members ranging in age from toddlerhood to 80, plus two family servants.

On the request of the lost boy’s father, these three homes were searched by the municipal authorities. There was no trace of Simon.

But on Easter night, Samuel’s family cook ducked into the cellar to draw some water for dinner and made a horrifying discovery: the body of the missing little boy, in the water of a bath.

After what must have been a fearful consultation, Samuel and the other two heads-of-households Tobias and Engel reported the find — strictly forbidding anyone to succumb to the entirely reasonable temptation to blow town, lest one flight incriminate all. Nevertheless, every one of Trent’s Jews realized that Simon’s appearance among them could easily trigger pogroms, expulsion, forced conversions … or worse. Much, much worse.

Now, it should be said that a ditch communicating with the outside fed Samuel’s cellar cistern. In the absence of indoor plumbing, it was possible for someone to literally throw a body into a home from the outside; the Trent Jews, in fact, reported discussing this possibility when news of Simon started making the rounds on Good Friday, and made sure to lock up their cellar windows to prevent someone dumping the body from the streets. But the remains of a very small child could also, perhaps, be entrusted to the flow of the public ditch to wash into a house.

This sort of thing might also explain why the child’s penis was gashed. Maybe, maybe not.

Of course, since the hypothesis of freaky Semitic blood rite was already “out there” and then the body went and turned up in a Jewish house, the presence of a gash on the sex organ was always going to be interpreted in a different vein

During the evening of Easter, the arrest of Trent’s Jews began. A pitiless judicial process which almost immediately became committed to the notion of a blood sacrifice soon began grinding these now-powerless people into dust.

The only other actual evidence touching Simon himself here — besides the admittedly powerful appearance of the body in the basement — was a Christian woman’s recollection that she had been near Samuel’s house on Good Friday and happened to hear an unseen child sobbing … somewhere. She thought it might have sounded like the lost boy.

But they’d soon be pointing fingers at one another.

Subjected one by one — the men, at least — to drops on the excrutiating strappado (“letting the prisoner jump,” in the words of the manuscript that forms the principal primary source about this event), they started to break down.

Tobias provided the critical (though not the first) crack. Looking “senseless or ruined” (in his interrogators’ records) after his strappado session, Tobias

spun this tale of murder, duly recorded and perhaps elaborated by the scribe: on the eve of Passover, Samuel suggested they should get a child; the task fell upon Tobias. He enticed Simon with sweet words to come with him and handed the sacrificial victim over to Samuel. On the day of Passover, Old Moses covered the boy’s mouth while the others stuck the child with pins and tore out his flesh; his blood was collected and distributed. Later, the dead child was thrown into the water by Samuel and Isaac. Tobias was not present at the killing, only rabbis possessed the knowledge of the rituals. In the minds of the prosecuting magistrates, Tobias’s confession established the scenario of the “real crime.” … With details embellished by the moral indignation of the Christians, this fantastic tale would become in time the history of the Trent ritual murder.

For the investigators, they were unraveling an obstinate criminal conspiracy while also attempting to document an arcane ritual. The present-day reader is likelier to see what amounts to a collaborative storytelling process in which torturers and prisoners reciprocally cued one another to the evolving needs of the script. “Tell me what I should say and I will say it,” one household servant at his wits’ end told his judges. This stuff still happens today.

they persisted in asking details of the Seder, trying to reconstruct every shade of meaning of blood symbolism, and recording with great care every Hebrew word associated with the imagined killing rite …

Some of the Jews held out, repeating their innocence over the screams of torment and stern questions; others broke down, blaming themselves and others in this grotesque elaboration of the fictive murder ritual. Still others retracted their confessions during moments of lucidity and respite from the rope, only to be tortured more severely into retracting their retractions. A few wanted to confess but could not anticipate the murder script written in the minds of the magistrates and, thus, continued to suffer; a handful, who desperately held onto reality, tried to incriminate themselves while excusing their loved one and subordinates from the charge, willing victims in a coercive sacrifice that demanded live offerings.

All these quotes, again, are R. Po-Chia Hsia, whose book handles all the horrible details of who copped to which story on what particular day, for the two-plus months of investigation, eventually coalescing into an official version that became the myth of the boy-martyr “Simonino”.**

In the end, nine of Trent’s male Jews were condemned to the stake for June 21-22 in Simon’s blasphemous murder: the three heads of households, plus all the male Jews in Samuel’s own house. The 80-year-old guy we mentioned before had also been tortured in the interrogation and was also among the condemned … but he blessedly committed suicide in prison before they could execute the sentence.

This first date was the turn of the household heads plus Israel, Samuel’s 25-year-old son — and like his father, one of the longest holdouts against the torture. They only broke at the end.

The remaining four were all to die on June 22. Two requested baptism, however, which bought them an extra day of life, plus the easier end of beheading on June 23.

* Der Schweizer, a known personal enemy of Samuel, was suspected by a follow-up apostolic investigation of himself murdering Simon and dumping the body to bring suspicion upon the Jews.

** Rome had long been nonplussed by the blood libel story, and the contemporary-to-Simon curia shut down Bishop Hinderbach’s Trent proceedings. But a century later, Pope Sixtus V promoted Simon of Trent to the official Catholic martyrology. Simon was only stripped of his official martyrs’ laurels, and his cult suppressed, in 1965.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Jews,Murder,Public Executions

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