Archive for April, 2015

1879: John Phair

Add comment April 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a circuitous four-year journey to the gibbet — quite Odyssean by 1870s standards — concluded when John P. Phair was hanged in St. Albans, Vt., still protesting his innocence.

Phair was convicted on circumstantial evidence of the murder of his former companion, Ann Freese: that circumstance was his pawning the late widow’s watch in Boston.

Though police had the exact serial number of the timepiece, Phair staunchly insisted that the man who sold it was not he — damning the Jewish pawnbrokers who identified him as the seller:

Their business is that of pawnbroking — a life of fraud. Their race bears the curse of God, because they crucified his Son eighteen centuries ago … They don’t regard an oath administered in the Christian form.

That salty quote is courtesy of the case file in the excellent historical crime blog Murder by Gaslight, which tracks the strange subsequent progress of John Phair to the gallows in 1877.

On that occasion, two years nearly to the day before his eventual execution, Phair had been due to die — but his supporters had also roused considerable skepticism on the justice of the sentence. For instance, the murderer had apparently covered his tracks by torching the place, and Freese’s remains were discovered badly burnt after the fire was put out. But this fire was detected at 7 a.m., three hours after the departure of the train Phair would have taken to Boston. And Phair produced a quasi-alibi in the form a train passenger who tentatively corroborated Phair’s claim to have merely switched trains in Boston without stopping long enough to fence a watch. So …

Is John P. Phair Guilty?
Boston Evening Journal, April 4, 1877

Wherever the judicial system proposes to situate the threshold for conviction and condemnation, some subset of messy real-life cases will always smudge the brightest of lines. Phair’s contemporaries simply could not satisfy themselves that they really had the right man. But neither were they convinced of Phair’s repeated denials. In the absence of moral certainty, legal process takes the reins. A dramatic eleventh-hour reprieve from the governor saved Phair in 1877. But as Murder by Gaslight notes:

The problem for Phair now was that by Vermont law he could not ask for a new trial if more than two years had passed since the original verdict. The governor granted him another reprieve until the first Friday of April, 1879 while the legislature debated changing the law.

Phair won this battle — the legislature empowered judges to refer such a case to the Supreme Court — but lost the war. In February 1879, Vermont’s high court considered, and then quickly rejected, Phair’s appeal. Past this point, exertions for the condemned man became the longest of shots, but this is not to say that they did not continue. The man’s exhaustive last-ditch efforts, some by his own hand and some mounted by his friends, have a whiff of the familiar present-day spectacle to them. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer sarcastically titled its after-action report “Hanged At Last”)

Phair won a six-day reprieve from a scheduled April 4 execution; on the eve of the hanging, two judges were taking Phair’s last appeal for a fresh trial; and on the morning of the execution the state’s governor was obliged to reject Phair’s supporters’ plea for a delay to allow the legislature to intervene yet again. (Phair didn’t even know this last one was occurring.)

The man himself was reported calm in the last hours, even as he persisted with his denials. Guilty or not, he finally fell through the long-awaited gallows trap murmuring “Lord, remember me!” at 2:11 p.m. on this date in 1879.

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

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1980: Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father-in-law

Add comment April 9th, 2015 Headsman

Iraqi cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was hanged on this date in 1980 in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

One of the greatest Shia scholars of the 20th century, Sadr laid the groundwork for modern Islamic banking. During the ascendancy of Arab nationalism, Sadr wrote sharp critiques of the rival Cold War systems and helped to found the Islamic Dawa Party.*

As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)

And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.

* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr wore when he attained his martyrdom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Iraq,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Power,Religious Figures

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1859: Baltimore’s Plug Uglies

Add comment April 8th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the joint hanging of youths from a notorious Baltimore gang, and in honor of the occasion thousands upon thousands of curiosity-seekers packed Charm City from “all parts of the State, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and even New York city and Buffalo” to throng the hills and high points overlooking the Baltimore City Jail, where a fine view could be had of the nominally private gallows.

“The housetops, windows, trees and all other places from whence a more enlarged view could be obtained, were crowded with human beings,” reported the Baltimore Sun (Apr. 9, 1859). “A sea of faces met the eye far and near — men, women and children — old age and infancy — white and black — swelled up the vast multitude, drawn to witness the horrible spectacle.”

The doomed quartet were four men named Henry Gambrill, Marion Crop, Peter Corrie, and John Cryphus. Cryphus was a black man condemned for a knife murder committed under the name John Stephens, and he vainly protested all the way to the gallows that Stephens was not he.

The other three who hanged with him — our principal focus today — were entirely unconnected to him. Gambrill, Crop, and Corrie were all stalwarts of the “Plug Uglies”, who were at once a street gang and a political goon squad, involved (with several similar entities) in a number of election day poll riots in the 1850s. Baltimore was at this point America’s third-largest city, having boomed to 200,000 souls rather faster than its civic institutions could cope.

The city veered near to mob rule (for which it earned the sobriquet “Mobtown”): rival gangs of toughs like the Plug Uglies regularly fought deadly street battles involving hundreds of participants — especially around municipal elections which they shamelessly rigged with armed bullying and prodigious vote-stuffing.* The anti-Know Nothing mayoral candidate in 1858 simply conceded the election rather than invite “loss of life and the general disorder of the city.”


Plug Ugly ruffians boss a ward. (Via)

Affiliated with the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement,** the Plug Uglies’ nickname underscores the brutal tenor of their times:

[Baltimore’s gangs] carried pugnacious and frequently obscene banners and often brandished weapons. The awl was seen as a workingman’s weapon, and many were made and handed out at rallies. They were used to “plug” Democrats “ugly” and to prevent them from voting. (Source)

Not long before that peacekeeping 1858 mayoral concession, alliterative policemen Benjamin Benton and Robert Rigdon had arrested a Plug Ugly crony for disorderly conduct, when Henry Gambrill raced up to the grappling trio and shot Officer Benton in the head.

Officer Rigdon, who knew Gambrill well, testified against the goon in the resulting murder trial. So incensed were Gambrill’s pals that they contrived to assassinate Officer Rigdon in revenge: covered by a lookout, Marion Crop in the dark of night shot Rigdon through a window as the cop stood at his mantelpiece chatting with his wife. Both Crop and the lookout, Peter Corrie, were chased down and condemned for first degree murder at separate, and sensational, trials in January 1859.

Despite the power of the Know-Nothings, this outrage proved to fall well outside the range of the Plug Uglies’ impunity. If they could do this, then what institutional pillar of the city would remain standing?

No small sentiment went abroad to skip the assassins’ trials and proceed directly to the hanging — perhaps a problematic means by which to stave off anarchy. In a more promising vein, the affair catalyzed some long-sought political reform measures from the legislature to rein in political violence. And on a chilly, overcast morning in April, Marion Crop stood on the gallows and belted out a hymn for the nation’s gawkers, joined with varying enthusiasms by the other three doomed men.

Former friends, we now must leave you
All our earthly hopes are o’er
But in heaven we hope to greet you
There to meet to part no more.

When a few more moments wasted
And this dying scene is o’er
When this last dread grief we’ve tasted
We shall rise to fall no more.

Fast our sun of life’s declining
Soon it will set in endless night
But our hopes pure and reviving
Rise to fairer worlds of light.

Cease this mourning, trembling, sighing,
Death shall burst this sudden gloom
Then our spirits fluttering, flying
Shall be borne beyond the tomb.

Corrie and Crop were buried privately. Gambrill enjoyed a solem public funeral with a procession of a hundred or so carriages through the center of town. An estimated eight to ten thousand Know-Nothing sympathizers attended it.

* Full marks for period color to the gangs of that time, which included the Rip Raps, Black Snakes, Blood Tub, Regulators, Rough Skins, Double Pumps, and Calithumpians. The successful Plug Uglies, who spread to other cities than Baltimore, were the ones destined to give their name to the language as a synonym for a an urban rowdy. (It’s also the name of some bars.)

** Shortly after the events in this post, Baltimore would be distinguished by a massive, and deadly, riot against a column of federal troops being dispatched to Virginia in the immediate aftermath of Fort Sumter. Since the Battle of Fort Sumter itself had not resulted in any combat fatalities, it was this riot that laid in the ground the first bodies of America’s bloody Civil War.

† While the Know-Nothings’ national impact was limited, they essentially took over Maryland’s political apparatus in the 1850s and made it the party bastion. Know-Nothing nominee (and former U.S. President) Millard Fillmore carried only one state in the 1856 presidential election won by James Buchanan: Maryland.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1764: John Nelson, Liverpool robber

Add comment April 7th, 2015 Headsman

From the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser, Feb. 15, 1764:

Extract of a letter from a gentleman at Liverpool, dated Feb. 2.

On Monday night was apprehended John Nelson (who has been frequently advertised in public papers) and for some time past has been a principal leader of a gang of highway robbers, and house-breakers. A Bailiff at Prescott has lately seen Nelson in a private lodging house in that town, and promised a handsome gratuity to the woman of the house, if she would give him the earliest intelligence when Nelson came again.

Accordingly on Monday evening, they acquainted him that Nelson was then in the house in bed; the Bailiff, upon this, engaged a Constable and three other men to accompany him to the house, and entering into it with as little noise as possible, they instantly went up stairs, and rushed into the room where Nelson lay; being thus surprised, and overpowered by numbers, he was at length obliged to submit, though not till after he had made a great resistance, and had struggled hard to get possession of his clothes, which lay at some distance from the bed; but the Bailiff stunned him by two blows on his head, and several upon his arm, with a large stick.

As soon as Nelson was secured, he offered the Bailiff a Johannes, and two other pieces of gold, and promised to send him fifty more in the morning, if he would leave him to drink a cup of ale with the other four men, but the Bailiff honestly rejected the profferred bribe. Upon examining his pockets, there were found two loaded pistols, which primed themselves, a powder-horn containing about two ounces of gunpowder, a tinder-horn, fifteen balls, a piece of crape, a case of launcets, a belt of a particular form to carry pistols in, and two silver meat spoons, without any mark.

He confessed, upon his examination before the Magistrates of this town, to all the robberies lately committed in this place, except one; to several highway robberies; and also impeached seven accomplices, two of whom are since taken and confined in the town gaol, two are gone to sea, and a pursuit is out in quest of the other three. Nelson formerly went to sea, and served an apprentice to a gentleman of this town; he is remarkably strong and robust, and of a daring and intrepid spirit. On the Sunday morning following, Nelson, with two of his confederates, attempted to make their escape, having got off their irons, and made a considerable progress under ground, but was prevented by the timely assistance of the guard, and properly secured; and on Tuesday they were conducted under a strong guard to Lancaster castle together with a woman, convicted of assisting the prisoners with saws and files, to make their escape. We hear Nelson has made several useful discoveries, by which means the gang of house-breakers and street robbers are expected to be brought to justice.


From the London Chronicle, Apr. 7-10, 1764:

At the assizes at Lancaster, the three following received sentence of death, viz. John Nelson, for entering the house of Mr. Richardson, of Liverpool, and stealing silver plate, &c. Thomas Naden, for pulling down and destroying Heaton-Mill, the property of Mr. George Bramall; and Francis Windle, for breaking into the house of Mr. Scarisbrick, of Widness, and stealing a sum of money. The judge, before he left the town, reprieved Windle, and ordered Nelson and Naden to be executed on Saturday the 7th instant.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1766: William Whittle

1 comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

William Whittle, a Catholic, was executed at Lancaster on this date in 1766 for murdering his Protestant wife and their children in a religious frenzy.

For whatever reason, several years into his union, Whittle took deeply to heart a priestly warning that he was liable to damnation for marrying a heretic. He accordingly ended the marriage by “cleaving his Wife’s Head with an Axe, and ripping her Belly open, and afterwards cutting off the Heads of the two Children, one of whom he also ripped open and took out its Heart.” (St. James’s Chronicle, April 5, 1766)

(The children, Whittle said, had been imperiled in soul by their mother’s taking them to an Episcopal church; in murdering them their loving father had sent them to purgatory en route to heaven, saving them from eternal hellfire.)

Whittle was condemned to be hung in chains for the shocking crime, a demonstration that Catholics understood as aimed pointedly at them. At least of their number replied with like menace in an anonymous letter to the Rev. Mr. Oliver of Preston, the magistrate who committed Whittle to prison.

Sir, I make bold to acquaint you, that your house and every clergyman’s that is in the town, or any black son of a bitch like you, for you are nothing but hereticks and damned fouls. If William Whittle, that worthy man, hangs up ten days, you may fully expect to be blown to damnation. I have nothing more material, but I desire that you will make interest for him to be cut down, or else you may fully expect it at ten days end. My name is S.M. and W.G.

(Letter as quoted in the Leeds Intelligencer, April 22, 1766 — also the source of the newspaper screenshot above)

Mainstream suspicion of Catholics at this time — which was within living memory of the last great Jacobite restoration attempt — was quite deeply ingrained; as one can see from the riposte above, the sentiment was mutual. After all, these were matters of eternal salvation even if Whittle himself “appeared to be a stupid, bigotted, ignorant fellow.”

The shocking family butchery evoked a minor wave of fretting over insidious Catholic-Protestant intermarriages. I think the present-day reader will not have much difficulty recognizing contemporary analogues to this thrust of resulting commentary:

I am likewise persuaded that there are many lay-papists in the kingdom who abhor this fact of Whittle as much as any protestant can do. But if their religion does not give countenance to such doctrines as this alledged by this miserable man, why do they not by some public act disavow their approbation of them? why do they leave suspicions upon themselves and their religion by their silence, when such occasions call upon them so pressingly to explain themselves, and particularly when they are complaining of the severity of the penal laws[?]

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,God,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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Themed Set: Lancaster’s Golgotha

Add comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

Lancaster’s harsh assizes earned it the nickname “Hanging Town”, and in its time what is today the verdant grounds of Williamson Park hosted innumerable executions as a result — including those of the Pendle witches in 1612, 15 Catholic martyrs, and various Jacobite rebels.

This was, if you will, Lancaster’s Tyburn: the moor on the city fringes where doomed prisoners were carted to their deaths astride their own coffins, complete with a last-drink stop at the local pub.

(Like Tyburn, the previously outlying locale has also become absorbed into the growing city.)

A copse of houses nearby the hill of executions thereby acquired the interesting moniker “Golgotha”, after the place of Christ‘s crucifixion. And who knows but that those feet in ancient times


Golgotha village in the 1960s or so. (cc) image from Graham Hibbert. Off the frame to the right of this image is the southern boundary fence of Williamson Park.

For the next few days, Executed Today will climb Golgotha to the gallows with a few of its lesser clientele.

* Starting in 1800, executions were moved to the nearby Lancaster Castle. One can tour the tower and its “Drop Room” where it all went down.

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1895: William Lake

Add comment April 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1895, William Lake died in the electric chair for soiling Albion, N.Y., with a most gory crime of passion.

The farmhand Lake nursed a very one-sided crush on a servant in the household of farmer Joseph Van Camp, 18-year-old Emma Hunt. One October night in 1894, the farmer called on a neighbor, leaving the two alone in the kitchen.

He returned an hour later to find Emma Hunt slaughtered as if by a demon. Her throat was slashed ear to ear and cross-shaped slashes to her abdomen had nearly disemboweled her. Nearby lay a bloody hammer that had caved in her skull. Lake was nowhere to be found, but he only dodged the sheriff’s posses for a few days before an officer caught him hiding in a barn.

It turned out upon Lake’s ready confession that this crime of passion was also one of calculation. Emma, said Lake, “bothered me and hectored me” in disdaining his affections, and “I made up my mind I would kill her.” (New York Herald, Oct. 22, 1894)

While the family ate supper on that horrible night, William Lake wrote out a confession to the murder he was going to commit once left alone, and packed a satchel with which to flee. (He forgot the satchel when the time came.) Lake’s written confession attributed a lifelong bitterness to his illegitimate birth.

He did not attempt to mitigate the crime in any way and welcomed a death sentence that was conducted within seven weeks of his conviction.

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

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Feast Day of Saints Agape, Chionia, and Irene

Add comment April 3rd, 2015 Headsman

In honor of Good Friday (in 2015), we pay tribute today to the Diocletian-era Christian martyrs Agape, Chionia and Irene.

The three virgin sisters whose names mean Love, Purity, and Peace in Greek were not, per tradition, actually martyred all together. However, they do share an April 3 feast date.

They are said to have made their illicit faith conspicuous to the governor of Macedonia by refusing to eat meat that had been burned as a pagan sacrificial offering. Agape and Chionia suffered immediate martyrdom, while Irene escaped to the mountains only to be captured and burned later with her Christian books.

The remarkable medieval canoness and playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim — by some reckonings the West’s first known dramatist since antiquity — made the women the focus of her 10th century play Dulcitius, which is available online in English here:

IRENA. You wretched Sisinnius! Do you not blush for your shameful defeat? Are you not ashamed that you could not overcome the resolution of a little child without resorting to force of arms?

SISINNIUS. I accept the shame gladly, since now I am sure of your death.

IRENA. To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!

Bad Gandersheim‘s Roswitha Prize is awarded (nearly) annually in Hrosvita’s honor. It’s the oldest German literary laurel that’s conferred exclusively upon women.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,God,Macedonia,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the the onset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Habsburg Realm,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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