Archive for August, 2013

1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.

With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.

Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.

Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.

Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.

When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.

Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.

Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”

On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.

When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.

Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.

His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.

The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.

He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.

Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.

Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.

On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.

Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.

This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.

The investigation went nowhere.

On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.

What happened next is unprintable.

Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.

As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.

As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.

At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”

Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.

When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”

Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.

The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.

(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)

At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.

Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”


Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.

The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.

In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.

Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.

Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.

So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.

He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:

Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.

He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.

In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.

His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”

He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Serial Killers,USA

Tags: , , ,

1535: Guillaume Husson, colporteur

Add comment August 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1535, the Protestant Guillaume Husson was burned for heresy.

The year before, Protestants had outraged the capital with a placarding campaign; maybe inspired by or in league with them, Husson turned up in early 1535 in Rouen and proceeded to flood the place with heretical tracts. Husson was identified by his hotelier and turned over to authorities before he could proceed to wreak his freaky doctrines on the next city.

The spectacle of public execution at this time followed a ceremonial script, although it was one that Protestants like Husson were going to rewrite with their behavior.

In an hours-long process, the condemned was first forced to perform amende honorable before a church, begging pardon of God with a rope about his neck and a heavy candle in his hands. For some offenses, this ritual penance could comprise the entirety of the punishment; for an execution, it was just the first act.

Its effect depended, of course, on the compliance of offenders who could usually be counted on to play the only part that held out hope of social redemption and everlasting salvation.

But as a Protestant, Husson wasn’t in a very compliant mood: he owed no plea to God for distributing correct religion, and he certainly rejected the Pope’s right to demand it of him. So Husson refused to perform the amende honorable, and even refused to hold the candle.

Catholic authorities would face in the years ahead the novel challenge of stage-managing many executions of reformers, ready to welcome execution, unreconciled with the Church, as their holy martyrdom. They would need strategies to deal with these obstinates. On Aug. 30, 1535, that strategy was “more violence”: for besmirching the ceremony, Husson had his tongue punitively torn from his mouth.* (Mutilation at this point could also sometimes be a formal part of the sentence.)

Following a long procession through the city to the place of execution, Husson was said (by his fellow Protestant propagandist Jean Crespin) to have died with such great firmness — thrusting his own head into the leaping flames to dramatize his embrace of the stake, and inspiring many onlookers (per Crespin) “to want to know more closely the true God of Israel.”

* David Nicholls, “The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation,” Past & Present, no. 121 (Nov. 1988)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Heresy,History,Public Executions,Religious Figures

Tags: , , , , ,

2007: John Joe “Ash” Amador

4 comments August 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2007, John Joe “Ash” Amador died of lethal injection in Texas.

Amador, age 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, hailed a taxi in San Antonio in the dark predawn hours of January 4, 1994, directed it on a long drive to a dark street in Poteet, Texas, and abruptly shot the cabbie in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. Amador’s cousin shot the cab driver’s ride-along companion.

It’s possible to get unusually up close and personal with Amador — both the man himself, and the gears of the death penalty process at the anticlimax of 13 long years.

To begin with, journalist Dave Maass interviewed Ash Amador a month before the latter’s execution, and posted 52 minutes of audio on Archive.org.

And in a more outre vein, a team of British filmmakers crafted a surreal and digressive but frequently touching documentary of Amador’s end, most especially through the eyes of the condemned man’s wife and family. As Maass put it, they’ve “given the man one wicked afterlife.”

If that teaser intrigues, the entire documentary is freely available online here — complete with an amazing scene of a death mask being cast from the freshly-executed, just-body-bagged Ash.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1765: Three Burglarious Johns

Add comment August 28th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1765, John Fagan, John Grimes and John Johnson alias Cochran were hanged in Burlington County, New Jersey in a rare triple execution.

The three Johns were convicted of home invasion robbery.


Wrong Three Johns.

On July 18 in Northampton Township, the three men, with their faces painted, burst into the house of Joseph Burr. By “threats of violence” they convinced Burr’s wife to give up her keys to the locked cabinets and made off with the following:

  • 1 silver sauceboat
  • 8 silver tablespoons
  • 9 silver teaspoons
  • A sum of money
  • A considerable quantity of shirts, aprons, caps and handkerchiefs
  • A great parcel of “wearing apparel made in the manner of people called Quakers”

They also took three valuable horses from Burr’s stable and rode off on them.

Burr and his wife told the authorities they knew the robbers were Irish because “they all had the brogue upon their tongues,” and it turned out three Irish laborers had gone missing from a farm near Mount Holly.

The thieves’ trail was discovered and a posse caught them red-handed, as it were, riding the stolen horses and carrying the stolen goods.

Justice acted quickly and Fagan, Grimes and Johnson were executed a mere six weeks after their crime. The Burlington County Treasury compensated the jailer his expenses in feeding the three men for 39 days.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,New Jersey,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1853: John Hurley, medicalized

Add comment August 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1853, John Hurley hanged at Galway.

He had bludgeoned a 16-year-old serving-girl to death to relieve her of seven and six her employers had entrusted her on a provisioning errand.

Seven and six, by coincidence, was the drop afforded to Hurley at the gallows — seven feet, six inches — and the fall failed to kill him: he strangled to death at the end of the rope with nauseating convulsions.

Oddly, this outcome — hardly unusual at the time — found its way into subsequent medical literature covering several distinct phenomena.

We turn in the first instance to the report of Charles Croker King, professor of anatomy at Galway’s Queen’s College. He witnessed the hanging and contrived to examine the young man’s body — both immediately after execution, and on the following day. His detailed account of observations from the 1854 Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science is presented, he says, further to helping coroners determine whether a possible suicide has, in fact, hanged him- or herself. King also takes his examination further afield to rebut the then-current pseudoscience of phrenology.

(Keep an eye out for his notice of gallows priapism.)

An individual having been found dead, and suspended by the neck, a medico-legal question has frequently arisen, as to whether the suspension of the body took place previous to or subsequent to death; and the determination of this point may constitute the important difference between an act of suicide or the perpetration of a murder. Suspicion might fall upon an individual known to be interested in the death of the deceased. The body may have been found under circumstances rendering self-destruction improbable; collateral circumstances may have strengthened suspicion, already strong against the accused; and at last the evidence may be so nicely balanced that the slightest additional testimony would be capable of turning the beam of justice in either direction.

A fearful responsibility might thus devolve upon the medical witness; his opinion would, of necessity, carry considerable weight, and he might be asked this important question, Could this individual have died by his own hands? Life or death may hang upon the answer; if it be erroneous, the guilty may escape from merited punishment; or, what is of still greater moment, and fearful to contemplate, an innocent life may be sacrificed and the earthly prospects of an entire family unjustly blasted.

Considerations of this kind have induced me to lay before the profession the result of a careful examination of the body of a malefactor whose execution I lately witnessed.

The circumstances attending the murder may not be without interest to some of my readers. Last summer a young girl, who had been sent on a message to a distance of five or six miles, was found barbarously murdered at the margin of Dunsandle Wood. A deep wound in the throat appeared to have been the immediate cause of death. Suspicion fell upon a person of the name of Hurley; he had been a fellow-servant of the girl; he had been seen on the day of the murder in the vicinity of the place where the body was found, walking (apparently upon friendly terms) with the deceased.

Hurley’s previous character was of an unsatisfactory nature: he never engaged in any regular occupation, but, on the contrary, led rather a wandering life, obtaining a livelihood as a messenger, and but seldom having or wishing for continuous employment; he was twenty-two years of age, about five feet seven inches in height, and weighed ten and a half stone, muscular, and athletic. Having been arrested, he contrived to effect his escape, which he accomplished by daring acts of agility. A large reward was offered for his apprehension, but for some weeks he contrived to elude justice; at last, worn out by fatigue and constant watching, he was apprehended while asleep in the open air. The evidence adduced at the trial, on the part of the Crown, established the culprit’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; he was consequently found guilty, and the 27th of August was fixed for his execution. The prisoner, upon being sentenced, declared his innocence, and cried for vengeance upon both judge and jury, either in this world, or in that to come.

On Saturday, the 27th of August, 1853, at twenty-five minutes past 6 o clock in the evening, the extreme penalty of the law was carried into effect; the execution had been delayed by the under-sheriff until this late hour from humane motives; the arrival of a reprieve by the late mail (though not to be expected) was within the reach of possibility.

A special messenger having returned from the train, hope was at an end, and the melancholy procession from the chapel to the place of execution formed. The culprit maintained considerable fortitude, but the frequent drawn, deep inspirations, and faltering steps, bespoke the sufferings of the inward man. It was a beautiful autumnal evening; the sun, as if in mockery of the solemn scene, danced upon the adjoining river, and illuminated a dense crowd of human beings, principally women and children, congregated to witness tne dying struggles of a fellow creature. Their conduct, upon the whole, was not indecorous, but they evidently regarded the scene as a serious amusement.

It is not my intention at present to discuss the propriety of public executions; I shall content myself by mentioning a fact which has a tendency to support the views of those who doubt the value of such exhibitions as terrible examples, calculated to deter others from the commission of crime; it is as follows. The excellent and humane governor of the county gaol mentioned to me that, some years ago, a convicted criminal admitted to him, that he had witnessed every execution that had taken place for years in front of the very gaol in which he was at that time confined. We learn from this circumstance, at all events, that in this particular case the examples fell valueless, for this man lay under sentence of death for murder.

The criminal, having been placed on the drop, in a firm voice acknowledged his guilt, the justice of the sentence, and expressed regret for the language he had used towards the judge and jury. The fatal bolt was withdrawn, and he fell through a space of seven feet and a half. The rope used was ten lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope; and on the noose being tightened by the executioner corresponded to the occipital protuberance. The body fell with a tremendous jerk, and oscillated for a few minutes; the arms and legs became rigid; the forearms flexed on the arms, the fingers flexed into the palms of the hands, and the thighs abducted and slightly drawn up towards the abdomen; the sternomastoid muscles were affected with spasms, and the hands became livid. After a short time the limbs relaxed; the legs approached each other, the toes pointing downwards; the hands became pale, fell down by the side, and the fingers became relaxed. The body, having been suspended for forty-five minutes, was cut down, and the cord removed from the neck.

There was not any protrusion, or unnatural suffusion of the eyes; the upper and lower teeth were half an inch apart, and the tongue was indented by them, the lips were rather livid, and the face pale; a slight depression marked the position of the rope; there was not any discoloration of the integuments of the neck, breast, or shoulders; the thumbs and fingers were flaccid; the ring and little fingers were flexed into the palms of the hands, but could be easily extended; the cap in which the head had been enveloped was slightly stained by bloody mucus, which had flowed from the mouth and nose; the bladder was empty, the criminal having made water a few minutes before his execution; the penis appeared as if it had been recently erect; it lay upwards against the abdomen, and a thin transparent fluid had stained the shirt; this fluid being thin and transparent, its source was suggested as the prostate gland; however, I removed a drop between two portions of glass, and on placing it in the field of a microscope, numerous spermatozoa were detected. No further examination of the body could be made this evening, but in the morning, eighteen hours after death, the body in the interim having lain on its back, the following additional observations were made: — Cadaveric stiffening of the body; lividity of the face; lips and ears purple, integuments of the shoulders and of the upper and front part of the chest, now livid; the site of the rope was scarcely perceptible; and, if attention were not particularly directed to it, it would in all probability escape observation; in one place, for about the extent of a quarter of an inch, there was a slight parchment discoloration of the skin. An incision was made one inch above, and a second one inch below, the former position of the rope, and the integuments were raised with great care; there was not the slightest extravasation of blood, nor did the areolar tissue present any peculiar silvery or white appearance; the thyroid cartilage was, perhaps, slightly flattened, but not broken; none of the bloodvessels [sic] or muscles were injured in the slightest degree (the lining membrane of the carotids was carefully examined); the mucous membrane of the larynx was of a bright red colour; both the tongue and brain were in a high state of congestion, — the ventricles of the latter contained about two ounces of serum; the posterior inferior lobes of the lungs were also congested; the right cavities of the heart were full of dark-coloured fluid blood; the left side of the heart was empty; there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.

From an attentive perusal of the post-mortem examination, above detailed, it will be evident that, in this particular case, there was a singular absence of those appearances generally regarded as necessary accompaniments of hanging during life; and the case reaches its maximum interest in legal medicine when we consider that, in this instance, death from hanging had occurred in its most violent form, and still was unattended even with those slight evidences which are enumerated by many authors as constant attendants upon death the result of simple suspension.

It need not, I think, be regarded as a fanciful conception, to imagine the possibility of a case occurring in which, if death were suicidal, the body must have fallen from a height; and if those appearances, which might be expected to be of necessity present, were, as in the above case, completely absent, an erroneous conclusion might be arrived at I, therefore, place this case of violent death, that was witnessed, and about which there can be no possible mistake, on record, in order that a disproportionate value may not be placed on negative results in cases involved in much obscurity.

In conclusion, I would say a word or two on the configuration of this man’s head in connexion with the system of phrenology.* The organs denominated “benevolence,” “love of approbation,” “concentrativeness,” and “adhesiveness,” were all well developed. If phrenology be true, benevolence should have deterred this man from imbruing his hands in blood. Death upon the scaffold ill accords with love of approbation. Concentrativeness should have attached him to some locality, whereas he was a notorious wanderer. The organ of “alimentiveneas” was small, notwithstanding which, from the day of his committal until the hour of his execution, he constantly applied for an increased quantity and an improved quality of food. The organs of “destructiveness,” “adhesiveness,” and “acquisitiveness,” were exceedingly small in their development, and, nevertheless, for the sake of a few pounds (of which he robbed his victim) he deliberately planned and perpetrated the murder of an innocent, unoffending girl, his friend and former fellow-servant.

I am well aware how difficult it is to produce any facts, no matter how apparently opposed to the system of phrenology, that its supporters will not endeavour to reconcile to their peculiar views. So carefully do they shelter themselves by such ingenious evasions as peculiarities of temperament, increased and diminished energy, and compensating action of organs, &c., &c.,but by such subterfuges they abandon the fundamental principle of phrenology, which makes size the measure of power.

In these observations I do not wish to be understood as undervaluing general cranial development; I recognise the brain as the seat of intellect, and consider that an imperfect development of it is incompatible with high mental acquirements; but such a view is perfectly distinct from the theory of the localization of organs from the mapping out of the head into distinct compartments, and assigning to each place a particular mental quality.

* The cranium was measured with a pair of phrenological callipers, and the development of the organs compared with a collection of crania in the Anatomical Museum, by which means the absolute as well as the relative size of the organs was obtained.

Victorian scientific journals had not yet had done with Mr. Hurley at this point.

Twelve years later, the Irish polymath Samuel Haughton undertook to bring scientific principles to the impressionistic and error-prone methods prevailing on the gallows of is time — methods that produced cases like the “most violent death” his predecessor had observed at Hurley’s execution.

Haughton’s seminal paper on this matter, “On Hanging, considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view,” is available online. Within, the author veers curiously from the Pentateuch to a speculative consideration of how Telemachus might have executed Penelope’s handmaids, to the down-and-dirty physics of killing a fellow on the gallows.

But its practical considerations come at last to the cold hard metrics of a noose’s striking-force upon a convict’s neck: the executioner’s moneyball. In this paper, he works out an early version of the formula that would within a few short years become the prevailing practice for British hangings. Hurley provides a case study for the satisfactory contrast to be observed when a better-selected fall boosts the hemp’s striking power by 42%.

I have searched in vain for well-authenticated instances of fracture of the cervical vertebrae produced by the usual method of hanging. Among the longest drops that I can find recorded, are two observed by Dr. Charles Croker King, when Professor of Anatomy in the Queen’s College, Galway.

Case I. A young man, named Hurley, was executed in Galway, at 6.25 p.m. on the 27th of August, 1853, for the murder of a young woman in Dunsandle Wood. The rope used was 10 lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope, and, on the noose being tightened by the executioner, corresponded to the occipital protuberance. His weight was 10½ stone, and he was allowed a drop of 7½ feet. These data give us as follows: —

work done = 147 x 152 = 1102 foot-pounds.

In this case, as Dr. King remarks, “there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.”

Case II. On the 11th of May, 1858, Patrick Lydon was hanged in Galway for the murder of his wife. Lydon was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches in height; the diameter of the rope was 10 lines; his weight was 9½ stone, and the drop 11 feet. Hence we find

work done = 133 x 11 = 1463 foot-pounds.

In this case, “that portion of the anterior common ligament of the spine which passes from the body of the second to that of the third cervical vertebra was ruptured, so that the left halves of the bodies of the above-mentioned vertebrae were separated from each other by an interval of one-eighth of an inch, but there was no displacement.”

These criminals were executed with the same rope, and death in the second case was not preceded by violent muscular convulsions, as in the first case — a fact which is readily accounted for by the excess of shock in the proportion of 1463 to 1102.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Murder,Theft

Tags: , , , , , ,

1874: Private Joseph Michaud, the first in Manitoba

2 comments August 26th, 2013 Headsman

The Canadian province of Manitoba logged its first judicial hanging on this date in 1874.

Private Joseph Michaud, an artillery gunner, earned the distinction with one of the classic criminal archetypes, the ill-advised bender. Having snuck out on the town — Winnipeg, in this case — a progressively more belligerent Michaud found himself by the wee hours slashing with his knife one of his fellow duty-derelicters.

That other soldier wasn’t the murder victim: it was, instead, a passerby who saw Michaud brandishing his weapon and attempted to intervene. The boozy artillerist chased that poor man down and left the Good Samaritan a bloodied corpse in the street, pocked with thirty or more knife wounds.

Once he sobered up, Michaud was as appalled as anyone. At his trial, his plea was “coupable dans mon coeur et je merite la morte.” (“Guilty in my heart and I deserve to die.”) In a similar vein, Canada’s temperance movement seized on the case of the remorseful young man driven to an act of madness by drink. “The miserable end of this young man Michaud ought to be a lesson to our young men to keep away form the temptation of strong drink.” (That quote and a longer summation of the trial are here.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Soldiers

Tags: , , , ,

1916: Benjamin De Fehr, fragging driver

Add comment August 25th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Canadian World War I enlistee Benjamin De Fehr was shot for murder.

De Fehr was one of 25 Canadians to go to the stake for military offenses during the Great War. Twenty-two of those were condemned as deserters; another for cowardice when he refused to advance.

De Fehr, by contrast, picked up his rifle inexplicably on August 19, 1916, and shot his Regimental Sergeant-Major James R. Scott in the back. He was tried three days later, and executed three days after that. His best defense was a disputed claim that he was drunk, probably not a winner under the circumstances even if true.

“Shot at dawn” soldiers have earned a good deal of latter-day sympathy, but suffering from shellshock and fragging your RSM are two different things. De Fehr wasn’t even a front-line soldier himself; he was a driver behind the lines. He was excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of 306 British Commonwealth soldiers executed during World War I.

He’s buried in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France, just three plots away from his victim.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1290: Zavis of Falkenstein

2 comments August 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1290, the vaunting nobleman Zavis of Falkenstein was beheaded below the walls of Hluboka Castle.

For from this eminence ye shall discern
Better the acts and visages of all,
Than in the nether vale among them mix’d.
He, who sits high above the rest, and seems
To have neglected that he should have done,
And to the others’ song moves not his lip,
The Emperor Rodolph call, who might have heal’d
The wounds whereof fair Italy hath died,
So that by others she revives but slowly,
He, who with kindly visage comforts him,
Sway’d in that country, where the water springs,
That Moldaw’s river to the Elbe, and Elbe
Rolls to the ocean: Ottocar his name:
Who in his swaddling clothes was of more worth
Than Winceslaus his son, a bearded man,
Pamper’d with rank luxuriousness and ease.

-Dante’s ungenerous assessment of Wenceslaus in the Purgatorio

The Bohemian Premyslid dynasty was at the height of its power in the 13th century. King Ottokar II, ruling a vast swath of central Europe, twice mounted unsuccessful bids for election to the imperial throne.

The second man to defeat him, Rudolph,* Ottokar refused to recognize, and open warfare ensued between the men — a war that Rudolph won when Ottokar was killed in battle in 1278.

The late sovereign left to his six-year-old son Wenceslaus II a reduced patronage, a betrothal to Rudolph’s daughter, and a strong domestic noble faction like to oppose the crown internally.

Zavis of Falkenstein was among the foremost of the many complications afflicting the young Wenceslaus. His Vitkovci family had been among the late Ottokar’s most potent domestic opponents,** and Claudius-like slithered right into the royal bed with Ottokar gone. Zavis paid court to the widow of his great foe, the Queen Regent Kunhunta, and married her in 1285. He was the first man in the kingdom for several years.

Wenceslaus, still a teenager, was becoming frantic at the prospect of Zavis usurping him altogether. When Kunhunta died and Zavis left town to marry again, the monarch turned the tables on his “protector”. When Zavis returned to Prague, he found himself clapped in prison. Wenceslaus then packed Zavis up for a Bohemian tour, where the hostage was brandished at belligerent Vitkovci fortresses to force their submission. Hluboka Castle, commanded by Zavis’s brother, refused to knuckle under, so the threat — and Zavis — were executed.

When your South Bohemia holiday stops over for a visit to this still-extant castle consider a stay at Hluboka nad Vltavou‘s four-star Hotel Zavis z Falkenstejna. Zavis himself is interred much further south at the borderlands’ Vyssi Brod monastery, which also boasts a jeweled crucifix donated for the salvation of the ambitious magnate’s soul.

* Rudolph I (Formerly Count Rudolph IV) was the first Habsburg king.

** Ottokar founded the city of Ceske Budejovice to project his power into the Vitkovci’s South Bohemia stomping-grounds. The city is still going strong; from its name derives the disputed Budweiser beer brand.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Hostages,Nobility,Power

Tags: , , , ,

1849: Rebecca Smith, to save her children from want

Add comment August 23rd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1849, forgotten mass murderer Rebecca Smith was hanged before a large crowd outside Devizes Prison in Wiltshire, England. She’d been convicted of the murder of her one-month-old baby, Richard.

Smith was the fifteenth person executed in the UK that year, and she would be the last woman in British history to be put to death for the infanticide of her own child. (Not to be confused with infanticide in general.)

Lionel Rose, in his book Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939, described Rebecca Smith as “an impoverished depressive and the wife of a drunkard.” In many ways she fit the profile for perpetrators of infanticide then and now: most women who commit these acts are desperate, often young, often impoverished, often unmarried, unable to take care of their babies and not knowing where to turn.

In many jurisdictions today, such women are treated leniently. 19th-century judges and juries did the same and rarely convicted the defendants of murder, which at the time entailed an automatic death sentence; they would usually try to go for an outright acquittal or, at worst, a manslaughter verdict.

As Rose notes in his book, “Between 1849 and 1864 there had been only 39 convictions of mothers for the willful murder of their children, almost all of them under 1 year and all but 5 illegitimate. From 1849 the Home Secretary invariably reprieved mothers who killed their own infants under twelve months … Between 1849 and 1877 only two more women were to be executed for child murder.”

One had slaughtered her four-year-old son; another killed not only her own child but also the child of her lover’s former mistress, to get him out of having to pay child support.

Rebecca’s case was something else altogether, though.

Her behavior before little Richard’s death was suspicious: she claimed the infant was “wasting away” when he was in fact the picture of health, and she went around in her home village of Bratton asking where she could buy arsenic.

When Richard died suddenly a short time later, the police launched a homicide investigation. On autopsy his body was found to be riddled with poison.

He had clearly been murdered in cold blood, but in spite of this the jury recommended mercy.

However, after her conviction Rebecca confessed that she had poisoned not just Richard but seven more of the eleven children born to her. Seven! All of them except Richard were killed only a day or so after birth. Her statements were confirmed when the authorities exhumed the children’s bodies and autopsied them.

Katherine D. Watson, in Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, explains Rebecca’s motive:

Aged forty-three, ‘undernourished and in poor health, living in great poverty and almost illiterate’, she had borne eleven children during eighteen* years of marriage, but only one, the first-born, was still alive. […] Her husband was an alcoholic who never earned much money and frittered away the £100 that her father left to her; although a seemingly pious woman, Smith felt that murder was a kinder fate than slow starvation. […] Seen by her neighbors as inoffensive and industrious, she claimed that her only fear was that her surviving daughter would be neglected after her death.

Two of her non-murdered children also died of natural causes; only one daughter survived to adulthood.

A contemporary account described her demeanor as she awaited death:

[H]er conduct was most becoming. Mild and contented in her manner and deportment might be thought that she was totally incapable of the unnatural crime of which she was convicted. Free from guile or hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that others would take warning by her fate. At the same time she was extremely ignorant, and betrayed a want of any deep feeling.

The modern reader may be shocked that she was able to get away with it for so long, but it wasn’t necessarily all that unusual.

The infant mortality rate in 19th-century Britain was so high, particularly among the poor, and the methods for investigating murders and potential murders were so primitive, that a person could commit such crimes repeatedly with very little fear of being detected.

Rebecca Smith was certainly not the only mother of that time and place who killed several of her own children during infancy, and she was probably not the most prolific, either. The only thing that stands out about her is that she got caught.

In spite of what she did, when you look at her life, it’s difficult not to pity her. But as Watson explained, “A confession to eight murders made a reprieve impossible.”

* Some sources say she was married twenty-eight (not eighteen) years.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

Tags: , , , ,

1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”

What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.

He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.

Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.

Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”


Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Terri: unfortunately the truth about Angola Will never be Known there is still interest and profit to be made from...
  • Kelley Wood-Davis: Thank you for posting this. My ancestor, Jacob Bopp/Bupp was the one who made the ropes for the...
  • Sherill Schouweiler: Totally agree with you. 45 min of this POS wasnt nearly enough time. This man is unfortunately...
  • jehanbosch/ Johan Louis de Jong: The Kingdom of Naples was an odd affair. Not in law but in pratice jointly ruled by...
  • Adeline: When criminals are this stupid and greedy it’s probably for the best that they are executed.