Archive for December, 2013

1957: Jorge Villanueva Torres, Monstruo de Armendáriz

Add comment December 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Jorge Villanueva Torres was shot in Lima, Peru as the notorious “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Except Jorge Villanueva Torres wasn’t actually the monster. His case is well-known in Peru but less so beyond, and all links in this post are to Spanish pages.

Villanueva’s hasty transmogrification began on the ninth of September 1954, when headlines announcing the discovery of a dead three-year-old child near Lima commenced a national crime hysteria. Authorities surmised that the little boy had been raped, too.

Vague eyewitness fixing on the suspect’s height and dark skin* brought many arrests of people fitting these loose criteria. Villanueva, a career petty criminal, fit that bill; when police announced him as the suspect, he became the object of his countrymen’s hatred.

Convicted in an atmosphere of prejudicial hysteria on the strength of eyewitness testimony loosely matching him to someone who might have given the victim a sweet to lure him off, Villanueva exploded with rage, even attempting to attack the judge. Naturally this only served to further implicate him as an uncontrollable beast — not as a falsely accused man pitiably near the breaking-point after two years as a nation’s scapegoat.

Villanueva asserted his innocence all the way to the fatal stake.

Those futile protestations are today widely accepted as true. There was little firm evidence against him and even the contemporary autopsy ruled against the incendiary child-rape allegation. Later forensic investigations have suggested that the poor child might simply have been the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. The mingled torments of guilt and relief in such a motorist as the matter played out must have been profound.

This case remains in present-day Peru a standing warning against occasional attempts to reintroduce the death penalty in response to the outrageous crime du jour. (Peru abolished the death penalty for all peacetime offenses in 1979.)

The Peruvian band Nosequien and Nosecuantos muses on the injustice in a single that shares its title with Villanueva — “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.

Whomever was the true “monster” — and whatever that person’s true measure of monstrosity — has never been known.

* Racism in Peru against black skin was then and remains today endemic.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Murder,Peru,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1876: Basilio Bondietto

Add comment December 11th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 12, 1876 Argus (Melbourne, Australia):

EXECUTION OF BONDIETTO.

Basilio Bondietto, who was tried and convicted at the last criminal sittings of the murder of Carlo Comisto, at Sandy Creek, on or about the 4th of September last, underwent the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of the Melbourne Gaol yesterday morning.

Bondietto was a Swiss, and Comisto was believed to be an Italian. They both lived together for about eight months on a selection of Comisto’s near Sandy Creek, their principal occupation being charcoal burning. About the 4th September Comisto told some neighbours that he intended proceeding to Melbourne, to make arrangements for the sale of firewood. He was never seen alive afterwards.

Bondietto when questioned as to his partner’s absence, gave several contradictory accounts, stating at one time that he had gone away with a woman, and again, that he had a quarrel with an Englishman and after a drinking bout had run away.

Suspicion being aroused, the hut where the two men lived was searched, and several stains of what was sworn to be human blood were found on the woodwork about the place. Human blood was also found on an axe outside the hut, and in the remains of the charcoal kilns a quantity of bones were discovered, some of which Professor Halford was able to swear belonged to a human body.

Boot nails, trousers buttons, and buckles were also discovered in the same place, which taken in conjunction with the blood stains and the disappearance of Comisto, left little doubt that the man had been murdered and his body afterwards consumed in one of the kilns.

At the trial, which took place before Mr. Justice Stephen, Bondietto was ably defended by Mr. Wrixon, but after a very careful investigation, extending over three days, the jury found the prisoner guilty. Since the verdict was announced strenuous exertions have been made by a number of persons to obtain a mitigation of the sentence, but without success. A very careful consideration was given by the Executive to all the circumstance, and it was determined that there was no reason to interfere with the course of justice.

Ever since his conviction the condemned man has been assiduously attended by the Rev. Fathers O’Malley, Lordan and Donaghy, he being a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The reverend gentlemen were able to converse with Bondietto in his native language, and exhorted him to entertain no hope of a reprieve but to prepare for the fate awaiting him. To those exhortations he paid great attention, and for some time past spent a considerable portion of each day in prayer.

Since his conviction his demeanour in the gaol has been generally of a composed character, although now and again he would break out into cries of “miserecordia,” and indulge in indistinct mutterings.

He evinced a hearty appetite for all his meals, the gaol allowance being scarcely sufficient to supply his wants. He professed to be altogether ignorant of English, although it was sworn by several witnesses at the trial that he could make himself understood in that language when living in the neighbourhood of Seymour.

The only English word that he seemed able to utter in gaol was “tobacco,” of which a certain quantity was allowed him. Of his antecedents very little has been discovered. It is known that he had resided in the colony for a number of years, and that he had a long acquaintance with Comisto, whom he has been executed for murdering.

He was about 60 years of age, of a spare form, hollow lantern-shaped jaws, black whiskers, and piercing eyes. There was a considerable look of imbecility in the countenance, but he appeared to be of sound mind.

The sentence was carried into effect at 10 o’clock yesterday morning. Shortly before that hour the sheriff (Mr. Wright), accompanied by the under sheriff (Mr. Ellis), arrived at the gaol, and, according to the usual form, handed his warrant for the execution to the governor of the gaol, and demanded the body of Basilio Bondietto.

Mr. Castieau handed to the sheriff the formal protest of Sir George Stephen against the execution, until an appeal was made to the Imperial authorities.

The sheriff was then conducted to the condemned cell, where Bondietto was confined. Immediately afterwards the hangman Gately entered from an adjoining cell, and performed the duty of pinioning the culprit. Bondietto all the time seemed to be exerting himself to the utmost to meet his fate with fortitude but it was evident that he was suffering terribly.

The pinioning, which took a considerable time, being completed, the white cap was put on but not drawn over the face, and the condemned man was led by Gately to the scaffold, the sheriff and governor of the gaol following in the rear.

On the platform the culprit was met by his spiritual counsellors. The form of service of the Catholic Church suitable to the occasion was read by Rev. Father Lordan, whilst Father O’Malley held the crucifix before the eyes of the condemned man.

Bondietto was asked by the latter reverend gentlemen if he had anything to say in public before quitting the world. He made some reply which was altogether unintelligible, and it was evident from the wild stare of his eyes that his whole thoughts were engrossed by the dreadful situation in which he was placed.

The rope was quickly adjusted round the neck of the culprit by Gately, but the executioner forgot to follow the usual practice of drawing the white cap over the face of the condemned.

After adjusting the rope, Gately stepped back and drew the bolt. Death was almost instantaneous, there being very few writhings of the body and the features did not appear much discomposed. After hanging for a short time, the body was cut down, and in the afternoon an inquest was held by Dr. Youl, the city coroner, when the usual verdict was returned.

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

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1875: William Wilson, taking the priest with him

Add comment December 10th, 2013 Headsman

From The Fabulous Frontier, 1846-1912. (The entire text below is a single large paragraph in that book, so line breaks have been added for readability.)

On August 2, 1875, Robert Casey was shot and killed by William Wilson in Lincoln with a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. Wilson was tried, convicted by a jury and sentenced to be hanged.

On December 10, 1875, the appointed day, a large crowd gathered in the Lincoln* jail yard to witness the hanging. Ash Upson** was present as a representative of the press, but left shortly after the trap was sprung, probably to get a drink.

After being suspended by a rope for nine and one-half minutes by the Sheriff’s watch, Wilson’s body was taken down from the scaffold and placed in the coffin.

Spectators nudged the Sheriff and told him that Wilson was not yet dead.

Red-faced and embarrassed the Sheriff and several helpers lifted William Wilson from his wooden coffin, escorted him once more to the scaffold. The rope was again tied around the condemned man’s neck and he was suspended for an additional twenty minutes, at the end of which time there was not much doubt that the demands of the law had been satisfied.

Father Antonio Lamy, twenty-eight years old, a native of France, a nephew of Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe, had been a reluctant witness to the hanging … Padre Lamy had been in Lincoln on a missionary tour. He called at the jail to offer spiritual consolation to William Wilson, soon to be hanged. Wilson prepared himself for death under Father Lamy’s direction and accepted his offer of company to the scaffold.

The hanging and rehanging of Wilson proved too much for the frail young man of God.

Rather desperately ill, suffering from chills and high temperature, the Padre insisted on returning on horseback to Manzano a few days after William Wilson had been hanged. Arriving in Manzano, Father Lamy’s condition rapidly became worse. He died there on February 6, 1876.

The remains of the priest were buried under the floor of the parish church at Manzano. The story of Padre Lamy’s death has for many years been kept alive in the Manzano community. His grave in the church has long been a silent sermon in opposition to the brutality of capital punishment.

* Lincoln was a little hit and miss with its necktie parties: it’s also the town where Billy the Kid escaped a hanging.

** Ghostwriter of Pat Garrett‘s memoir, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Murder,New Mexico,Public Executions,USA

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1937: Douglas Van Vlack

Add comment December 9th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I have a right to choose the way I die!”

— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937

Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1934: John and Betty Stam, China missionaries

1 comment December 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Chinese Communists beheaded John and Betty Stam in the Anhui province town of Miaoshu.

The Stams had settled as China Inland Mission proselytizers in the town of Jingde (at their time generally rendered as “Tsingteh”). Betty Stam (nee Scott) had grown up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. John was a New Jersey native who had graduated Moody Bible Institute in 1932. They had a three-month-old daughter named Helen Priscilla.

On December 6, 1934, Communist rebels in China’s long-running civil war entered Jingde and seized the foreign family. According to a tribute page kept by a great-nephew of the, John wrote a short note that evening.

Tsingteh, An.
Dec. 6, 1934

China Inland Mission, Shanghai

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of the Communists in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage and peace of heart. He is able-and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-persistent rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

In Him,
John C. Stam

The author of John and Betty Stam: Missonary Martyr summarizes his subjects’ “inspiring and instructive story” in a blog post here.

A foreboding message, but Christian evangelizing in China had often proved dangerous to its practitioners.

The next day they were marched 12 miles to Miaoshu where they stopped for the night. Facing martyrdom, the couple stowed their daughter away like Moses, hidden in a sleeping bag with John’s last missive and ten dollars that might serve to care for her.

Miraculously, Helen Priscilla would be overlooked when the Stams’ captors came for them on December 8 and marched them through Miaoshu. It’s said that one Chinese vendor made bold to object, and was added to the doomed party for his trouble. At the end of the march, John was forced to his knees and beheaded before his companions’ eyes; Betty and the shopkeep followed him.

Little Helen survived her parents’ ordeal. A Chinese evangelist named Lo found the girl and carried her 100 miles to a mission hospital. She was taken in from there by Betty’s parents and eventually adopted by Betty’s sister and raised in the Philippines before returning to the United States.

Back in China, another missionary, Frank Houghton, was moved by the sacrifice of the Stams to compose a hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” (set to an old French canticle, Quelle est cette odeur agréable?).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Guatemala,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1938: Martha Marek, Zeliopaster

Add comment December 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Austrian Martha Marek was guillotined in Vienna for several murders by poison.

She first came to the attention of the discerning interwar crime audience in 1925 when she and her husband Emil were convicted of insurance fraud: Emil claimed to have “lost his leg while chopping wood” just after having taken out a policy, but examination showed that the lost leg had actually been chopped off methodically — and clumsily. They both served a short stint in prison but at least Martha still had four good limbs to go with her wits.

Martha before her marriage had been the lover of a department store magnate five decades her senior who lavished money on her and left her a tidy inheritance to the chagrin of his family. She made her way in the world hitting mother lodes and living comfortably on them, and the time would come that poison would suit her ends better than seduction.

In July 1932, Emil died of apparent tuberculosis. The next month, the couple’s infant daughter Ingeborg died too. Martha, who had lately been reduced to peddling vegetables in the street, pocketed insurance payments on both.

Shortly after, she moved in with an elderly aunt, and the aunt soon died too — leaving her home and assets to her “caregiver”.

As this nest egg dwindled, Martha opened the place to boarders, and one of these poor souls also died — not before mentioning to some people that he always seemed to get sick when he ate Martha’s food. Turned out, Martha had insured his life too.

Martha actually got away with all of this at first, despite the agitation of the dead boarder’s relative. But she pushed her luck a little bit too far when she tried to fraudulently report some insured paintings as stolen in 1937. Persnickety insurance adjusters investigated, and the whole murder spree came out in the process. She was convicted for killing husband, daughter, aunt, and lodger with the rat poison Zeliopaste (thallium).

Austria’s traditional execution method had been hanging, and its traditional executive behavior had been to commute women’s death sentences.

However, the March 1938 Anschluss annexing Austria to Hitler’s Germany brought an update to Germany’s capital punishment policies. Hitler rejected the mercy application (it didn’t help that Martha was half-Jewish) … and prolific Third Reich executioner Johann Reichhart overpowered a violently struggling Martha Marek to behead her on the fallbeil.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,Women

1774: Peter Galwin, pedophile, and John Taylor, zoophile

Add comment December 5th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1774, Peter Galwin and John Taylor were hanged together in Burlington in New Jersey.

Galwin was the principal of a small school in Northampton Township with a hankering for prepubescent children. According to court documents, Galwin raped or attempted to rape four young girls on four separate occasions in July and August 1774: Ann Prosser, Hope Reeves, Sarah Deacon and Ann Jones, all of them “infants under the age of ten years.”

The assault caused “great damage” to Ann Jones in particular. Whether or not the victims were his students is not known.

The crimes of John Taylor, alias John Philip Snyder, were still more exotic.

An itinerant farmhand, he allegedly stole money, “two items of female intimate apparel” and other items from his employer, a widow named Orpha Emlay, on August 13, 1774. She suspected him of the theft but lacked proof, so she decided to spy on him.

Daniel Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963, describes what happened six weeks later:

She wound up getting more than just an eyeful on the afternoon of October 2, 1774. It was then that the wary woman peeked into her barn and saw Taylor committing an act of gross indecency with a cow. Appalled, Emlay presumably let out a shriek because Taylor heard her. The naked pervert chased her down while brandishing a knife and a hammer. He smashed Emlay’s skull and slit her throat from ear to ear.

Understandably, public outrage against both offenders ran high in the community. Hearn notes that guards had to “prevent enraged onlookers from tearing both men apart before they reached the gallows.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,New Jersey,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex,USA

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Outlaws,Public Executions,Terrorists,Theft,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1864: Bill Sketoe, hole haunt

Add comment December 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a hulking Methodist minister by the name of Bill Sketoe was hanged in Newton, Alabama … but his ghost story was only just beginning.

Sketoe’s life is nearly as spectral as his death, but he is known to have been a longtime denizen of Newton’s Dale County where he preached the gospel and fathered a biblically-appropriate brood of seven children.

The easiest version says that Sketoe deserted the Confederate army to care for his sick wife. However, there’s no documentary evidence that Sketoe actually served under arms in the Civil War, although two of his sons did. He might actually have been suspected of aiding Unionist raiders haunting the forests — men like John Ward, a local pro-Union guerrilla with whom Confederate guards had just days before fought a skirmish.*

For whatever reason, a local Confederate cavalry militia under one Captain Joseph Breare seized the preacher near the Choctawhatchee River on December 3, 1864, and hanged him to a convenient tree.

Now, Bill Sketoe was a large man, and the bough of the Post Oak that supported his noose bent to his weight until Sketoe’s toes touched the ground. For an ad hoc execution, an ad hoc solution: one of Breare’s so-called “Buttermilk Rangers” simply dug out the ground around Sketoe’s feet until they dangled free in the hole and their owner could strangle to death properly.

Beloved Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham immortalized “The Hole That Will Not Stay Filled”, one of the chapters of her 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Local legend, it seems, held that whenever someone later filled in Sketoe’s dangling-pit — with dirt, rubbish, or anything else — it would be mysteriously un-filled within hours.

Unfortunately the present-day skeptic will not be able to put geist to test because “Sketoe’s Hole” was destroyed in a 1990 flood, and is today covered over with tons of rocks supporting a bridge strut — too much infill even for spooks. (Though not enough to deter visitors.)

Sketoe’s executioner Joseph Breare resumed his law practice after the war … until a falling tree killed him during a storm in 1866.

* David Williams develops the John Ward connection in Rich Man’s War: Caste, Class, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. A few months later an incursion of different irregulars led by a Dale County Confederate officer who deserted to the Union, Joseph Sanders, precipitated the Battle of Newton.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Popular Culture,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Wartime Executions

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