Archive for December, 2016

2006: Gong Runbo, serial killer

Add comment December 31st, 2016 Headsman

Chinese serial killer Gong Runbo was executed on this date in 2006.

Runbo’s Jeffrey Dahmer-like hidden life had been exposed that February when a boy escaped from sexual assault his house in Jiamusi and called the police.

The ensuing search revealed remains rotting on Gong’s bed that would be identified with four missing children — Wu Shutian, 10, Ma Qianli, 10, Bai Jinlong, 15, and Jiang Fuyuan, 12. DNA tests revealed at least two other victims besides, but his true body count might have run towards 20.

Outrageously, it had transpired that local police had slow-walked reports of missing children in the vicinity for fear of creating a public panic — permitting the murderer months of extra time to operate.

“Sadly, six kids may have died because of our failings,” said a Ministry of Public Security spokesman.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers

1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.

The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)

At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.

Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”

Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.

Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”

Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)

Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.

The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.

in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.

Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.

* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1594: Jean Châtel, lipstabber

Add comment December 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Catholic militant Jean Châtel was dismembered for the near-assassination of King Henri IV.

Just two days before his public butchery, the 19-year-old clothier’s son (English Wikipedia entry | French) had milled about in a crowd awaiting the Huguenot* king’s return from Picardy. As Henri entered the Hotel de Bouchage and bent over to accept the obeisance of two courtiers, Châtel sprang out of the crowd and daggered him. The blade cut Henri’s lip — a glancing blow just a few degrees distant from a history-altering one.

Châtel would cite Jesuitical inspiration, and when his instructors’ quarters were searched they yielded seditious exhortations against Protestant princes. One Guignard, who had authored the most inflammatory tracts (e.g., regretting that Henri had not been slain at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre), was put to death on January 7; the rest of the order was expelled from Paris — as was Châtel’s family, whose home was razed and replaced with a monument against religious fanaticism.


The pyramid memorial was replaced by a succession of fountains, of which the most recent is the present-day Fontaine Cuvier.

It was of course far too much to hope that this scolding plinth could bring down the dangerous sectarian temperatures raised by a half-century of civil war. In his time Henri IV evaded numerous — some 20 or more — attempts on his life, before a different Catholic enragee, one Francois Ravaillac, successfully murdered him in 1610.

* The threat of pedantry in the comments section obliges us to allow that Henri nominally converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and end the Wars of Religion — the occasion on which he was purported to murmur that (staunchly Catholic) Paris is worth a Mass.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,France,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1888: Leong Sing

Add comment December 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the San Francisco Bulletin, Dec. 28 1888:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1864: Richard Hale, but not Cecilia Baker

Add comment December 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On December 27, 1864, Richard Hale was hanged at the Stafford Gaol for the murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Eliza Silletto.

Little Eliza’s body had been found in a cornfield in Coseley in the West Midlands region of England on August 2 that year. Her body was so badly decomposed that at first it was impossible to determine the gender, but it was assumed to be a girl because it was wearing girls’ clothing. Although authorities couldn’t determine the precise cause of death due to the decomposition, they believed the child’s throat had been cut. The body was eventually identified as Eliza. Her father had reported her missing on July 20.

Richard Hale was known in the area as a bit of a hard case: he had recently done time for manslaughter. The victim in that case was his wife, Eliza’s mother, who had starved to death.

After his release, he shacked up with Cecilia Baker and, although not legally married, they lived as man and wife. He had been heard to say he wished his daughter was “out of the way.”

Both Hale and his girlfriend were both arrested and charged with murder, but Baker had to be released for lack of evidence.

However, a witness came forward and said he thought he might have seen the murder. According to John Jones, he was walking near the cornfield when he saw a man and a woman pushing a little girl back and forth between them, harder and harder until the woman actually threw the girl at the man and then turned and started walking away. The little girl started crying loudly, then the sobs stopped abruptly.

Jones hadn’t reported the incident at the time because he didn’t find it suspicious. After all, who commits a murder in broad daylight right in front of a witness?

Jones identified Eliza’s father and his paramour as the man and the woman he had seen that day. His statement gave the authorities the evidence they needed to re-arrest Cecilia Baker for her role in the crime.

Given Jones’s identification and Hale’s criminal history, it wasn’t hard to convince a jury of the couple’s guilt. Hale was sentenced to death, but Cecilia’s death sentence was respited because she was pregnant. Her sentence was eventually commuted and she served a life term at the Knaphill Female Convict Prison in Surrey — the same place where the notorious poisoner Florrie Maybrick did time decades later.

For his part, Hale suffered a public double execution alongside an unrelated murderer, Charles Brough. The visibly nervous Hale pled his innocence all the way to the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices

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831: St. Euthymius of Sardis, iconophile

Add comment December 26th, 2016 Headsman

This is the martyrdom date in 831 for the iconodule saint Euthymius of Sardis.

Euthymius was just a child when Byzantium’s century-long internal conflict over the image-veneration wrote St. Stephen the Younger into the pages of this here blog way back in 764.

By the time Euthymius attained the bishopric of Sardis in the 780s, the Empress Irene was putting an end to her predecessors’ anti-icon campaigns, and Euthymius took part in the Second Council of Nicaea that made the new policy official.

Posterity has a difficulty measuring by way of scanty and partisan sources the true state of sentiments surrounding icons during this period but it’s a sure thing that for an empire besieged both west and east, religious questions connected inextricably to geopolitical ones. Irene’s shift towards embracing what iconoclasts saw as graven images spanned about a quarter-century which also coincided with humiliating reverses for Constantinople. Irene’s son was thrashed by the Bulgars to whom her treasury was then obliged to submit tribute; then Irene had that very son deposed and blinded. Irene was toppled in her turn by her finance minister but Emperor Nikephoros too was trounced in battle and his skull wound up as the Bulgar Khan’s ceremonial goblet.

Small wonder that when Leo the Armenian took power in 814 he reflected that

all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

For a prelate like Euthymius, this meant a return to the opposition benches. He’s reported to have been arrested and exiled twice in the ensuing years before finally being scourged to death in 824 at the behest of Leo’s successor; however, scholarship has better associated this event with the more vigorous anti-icon persecutions of Theophilus after 829. In 831, Arab forces devastated Cappadocia and also captured Panormos in Byzantine Sicily. In light of these reverses Theophilos discovered that an anti-iconoclast manifesto predicting the emperor’s imminent death had been circulated — so again the link between prestige abroad, sedition within, and those damned icons. Theophilus attributed the pamphlet to a pro-icon bishop named Methodius, who was a friend of Euthymius, and had both men arrested.

Imprisoned on the island of St. Andrew, near Constantinople in the Sea of Marmara, the two men were questioned about their associates by the postal logothete — probably Arsaber, the brother of [anti-icon future patriarch] John the Grammarian — who was accompanied by the chartulary of the inkpot Theoctistus. Euthymius seems to have mocked Theoctistus and would name only one of his visitors: Theoctista, the mother-in-law of both the logothete and the emperor!* Theophilus had both Euthymius and Methodius beaten soundly. While Methodius, who was just over 40, could endure it, the 77-year-old Euthymius died from his injuries on December 26 and became an iconophile martyr. The empress Theodora was reportedly so upset at Euthymius’s death that she told Theophilus that God would desert him for what he had done. (Source)

The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episode 103.

* Theoctista was an actual iconophile. Her house in Constantinople later became the Monastery of Gastria — and post-1453, a mosque.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Early Middle Ages,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Religious Figures,Torture,Turkey,Whipped

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2014: Ismai Khan Sayed, a Pakistani heroin smuggler in Saudi Arabia

Add comment December 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2014, Saudi Arabia beheaded Ismail Khan Sayed for smuggling “a large amount” of heroin into the kingdom.

Despite (or because of) its strict sharia mores, Saudi Arabia has developed a national appetite for mind-altering substances. It’s an epidemic that the kingdom’s busy headsmen have been detailed to address on the supply side, although of course the treatment for foreign gofers like Sayed differs markedly from that of the many drug-addled royals who enjoy the product.

“Most of our shit originates in Afghanistan,” a Saudi drug dealer told Vice in 2013. “It’s a long chain of selling that starts with nomads in Afghani fields. They grow it, then it gets hidden between crates away from the mutawa [the religious police -ed.] and goes from seller to seller like a spider web.”

For hashish as well as heroin sourced to Afghanistan, Pakistani couriers play an essential role in that web — even if they are eminently disposable individually. They have had a growing prominence in Saudi Arabia’s frequent execution bulletins: Sayed was the 12th Pakistani drug mule executed in Saudi Arabia in a two-month span at the end of 2014; there have been (and continue to be) many more since.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drugs,Execution,Pakistan,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Saudi Arabia

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1744: The Black Boy Alley Gang hanged at Tyburn

Add comment December 24th, 2016 Headsman

Old Blighty celebrated Christmas Eve of 1744 by weighing the Tyburn’s triple tree with no fewer than 18 thieves — 16 men, one woman, and one 14-year-old boy. Half of them were fellows in a “pestiferous Crew,” as the Newgate Ordinary colorfully describes it, the Black-Boy-Alley Gang.

Such a profligate Sett of audacious Bloodthirsty, desperate, and harden’d Villains, have of late started up to infest this great City, as make it quite unsafe to walk even in the most public Streets … Whether we consider the Number of the Malefactors, the Nature of their Crimes, the Age of some of the Offenders, (one particularly, which was a perfect Child) or the Apprehensions into which the Inhabitants of this great City were for some Time thrown, by their Excessive Boldness in committing their Robberies, all wears the Face of Horror and Confusion.

As one might suppose, these rascals based in the environs of Black Boy Alley, a no-longer-extant passageway onto the Thames in Holborn. Rictor Norton, whose work on crime in 18th century England and especially the proto-gay “molly” culture, has often been referenced in these pages, has a fascinating exploration of the Black Boy Alley gang here.

As usual one can read the entire tract at at the Old Bailey Onine; we’ve also embedded it below in pdf form.

While the Ordinary — a man named James Guthrie — expands considerably on the activities of this lot, he is outraged enough to begin his narrative instead with a group of soldiers reprieved from enlarging the Christmas Day caravan to Tyburn — “a Sett of Malefactors, who not content with the Crime of Robbery, have thought add thereto the most heinous Offence of Sodomy, which brought down Fire from Heaven; and, as if this had not been enough, they made that very monstrous Crime a Handle and Snare to draw Gentlemen in, who were inclined to that unnatural Sin.” (That is, they robbed by seducing their targets with the promise of a homosexual assignation.)

Guthrie is unabashedly furious that these guys have all managed to skate, and revenges himself by appending them to his narrative even if they cannot be depended from the gallows — so consumes the best part of ten pages reciting all that he knows or has heard about them, that “though they have hitherto escaped corporal Punishment, at least, in this World, we will do out Endeavour they shall not go wholly Scot-free, but expose both them and their vile Practices to the Public.” Considering that the nub of their operation was robbery, often violent, which of its own would cost the lives of many others on this date and throughout the era of the Bloody Code, no emerging enlightenment on human sexuality need be sought to explain their reprieve. Rather,

Of this abominable Sett, the better Sort, (if indeed any better can be of such a Crew) have found the way to escape both Shame and Chasment, very probably, by commuting with their Purses for the safety of their Persons; and as for the latter, who were all Soldiers, they escaped what was due to their Deserts, by being concerned with their Superiors; so true this our righteous Age, that Wickedness in high Places is sure to go unpunished.

On this day..

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

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1569: Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow

Add comment December 23rd, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1569, Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow was martyred for his opposition to Ivan the Terrible.

He was elevated in 1566 as Russia’s top prelate* by that same Ivan, who soon regretted and then raged at his selection when Philip righteously withheld the church’s blessing from the tyrant in the midst of Ivan’s Oprichnina bloodbath.

That was in Lent of 1568. Before the year was out Ivan, who did not fear to bully churchmen, had forced Philip’s deposition and had him immured in a Tver monastery.

Safely out of the way there, the tsar’s fell henchman Malyuta Skuratov arrived two days before Christmas of 1569 pretending to bear a message. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” the monk replied. Skuratov strangled him to death.


Here comes trouble: Metropolitan Philip in prayer as his executioner arrives. (By Aleksandr Nikanorovich Novoskoltsev, 1880s.) For a more mannered and less violent interpretation of the same scene, try this number by Nikolai Nevrev

The Russian Orthodox Church observes this saint’s feast date on January 9. His relics are enshrined today at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral.

* Moscow did not become a patriarchate until 1589, so Philip did not bear that title.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Religious Figures,Russia,Strangled,Summary Executions

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1651: Arnold Johan Messenius and his son

2 comments December 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Sweden’s Queen Christina revenged a libel on the head of Arnold Johan Messenius and his 17-year-old son.

The educated and determinedly unmarried Christina ranks among history’s most remarkable monarchs; her disinterest in marriage, her masculine dress, and her intimate friendship with Countess Ebba Spare have led her to be speculatively identified as lesbian, hermaphroditic, or otherwise subversive of gender — as in the recent film The Girl King.

However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.

One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until

he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.

Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.

The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.

But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,

Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.

Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.

Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.

For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Sweden,Treason

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