Archive for April, 2018

1389: Fra Michele Berti, “Cristo povero crocifisso”

Add comment April 30th, 2018 Headsman

“This is a truth that resides in me, to which I cannot bear witness if I do not die.”

-Fra Michele Berti, at the stake

On this date in 1389, the Fraticelli friar Fra Michele Berti da Calci burned in Florence as a heretic.

This excommunicate movement of “Spiritual Franciscans” who insisted upon the poverty of an order that had come to enjoy its emoluments had for decades now dogged the Church with a persuasive critique and credo: “io credo in Cristo povero crocifisso,” as our man Michele Berti said to his inquisitors. “I believe in Christ, poor and crucified.”

The quote is from a remarkable surviving account, “La passione di frate Michele” — whose title explicating the saint’s similarity to ancient martyrologies reveals where its sympathies lie. It can be perused online in Italian here or here.

According to the passione, the Florentine populace joined Michele’s persecutors in urging him to reconcile and save his life, as he made his public progress across the city to his death dressed in a mantle painted with demons in a sea of fire. The friar’s steadfastness eventually turned onlookers to his side, so that as his procession neared the Prato della Giustizia, “a believer began to cry out, saying: stand firm, martyr of Christ, who will soon receive the crown.”

Awestruck after Berti went to the pyre singing Te Deum, the crowd began to murmur, and “many said he seems a saint, even his adversaries … and they could not have their fill of railing against the priests.”

In Umberto Eco’s great literary monument to the Fraticelli, The Name of the Rose, the young oblate Adso reminisces at one point of visiting Florence, and of witnessing an execution that appears to be modeled on on this very account including such details as Michael’s criticism of Pope John XXII and Thomas Aquinas, his refusal to kneel before a “heretic” bishop, and the tongue-lashing he gave to skulkcowl Franciscans en route to his death.

A heretic Fraticello, accused of crimes against religion and haled before the bishop and other ecclesiastics, was being subjected to severe inquisition at the time. And, following those who told me about it, I went to the place where the trial was taking place, for I heard the people say that this friar, Michael by name, was truly a very pious man who had preached penance and poverty, repeating the words of Saint Francis, and had been brought before the judges because of the spitefulness of certain women who, pretending to confess themselves to him, had then attributed sacrilegious notions to him; and he had indeed been seized by the bishop’s men in the house of those same women, a fact that amazed me, because a man of the church should never go to administer the sacraments in such unsuitable places; but this seemed to be a weakness of the Fraticelli, this failure to take propriety into due consideration, and perhaps there was some truth in the popular belief that held them to be of dubious morals (as it was always said of the Catharists that they were Bulgars and sodomites).

I came to the Church of San Salvatore, where the inquisition was in progress, but I could not enter, because of the great crowd outside it. However, some had hoisted themselves to the bars of the windows and, clinging there, could see and hear what was going on, and they reported it to those below. The inquisitors were reading to Brother Michael the confession he had made the day before, in which he said that Christ and his apostles “held nothing individually or in common as property,” but Michael protested that the notary had now added “many false consequences” and he shouted (this I heard from outside), “You will have to defend yourselves on the day of judgment!” But the inquisitors read the confession as they had drawn it up, and at the end they asked him whether he wanted humbly to follow the opinions of the church and all the people of the city. And I heard Michael shouting in a loud voice that he wanted to follow what he believed, namely that he “wanted to keep Christ poor and crucified, and Pope John XXII was a heretic because he said the opposite.”

A great debate ensued, in which the inquisitors, many of them Franciscans, sought to make him understand that the Scriptures had not said what he was saying, and he accused them of denying the very Rule of their order, and they assailed him, asking him whether he thought he understood Scripture better than they, who were masters. And Fra Michael, very stubborn indeed, contested them, so that they began provoking him with such assertions as “Then we want you to consider Christ a property owner and Pope John a Catholic and holy man.” And Michael, never faltering, said, “No, a heretic.” And they said they had never seen anyone so tenacious in his own wickedness. But among the crowd outside the building I heard many compare him to Christ before the Pharisees, and I realized that among the people many believed in his sanctity.

Finally the bishop’s men took him back to prison in irons. And that evening I was told that many monks, friends of the bishop, had gone to insult him and enjoin him to retract, but he answered like a man sure of his own truth. And he repeated to each of them that Christ was poor and that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic had said so as well, and that if for professing this upright opinion he had to be condemned to the stake, so much the better, because in a short time he would be able to see what the Scriptures describe, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and the glorious martyrs. And I was told tht he said, “If we read with such fervor the doctrine of certain sainted abbots, how much greater should be our fervor and our joy in desiring to be in their midst?” And after words of this sort, the inquisitors left the prison with grim faces, crying out in indignation (and I heard them), “He has a devil in him!”

The next day we learned that the sentence had been pronounced, and I learned that among the crimes of which he was accused, it was said that he even claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not a saint nor did he enjoy eternal salvation, but was, on the contrary, damned and in a state of perdition — which seemed incredible to me. And the sentence concluded that, since the accused did not wish to mend his ways, he was to be ocnducted to the usual place of execution et ibidem igne et flammis igneis accensis concremetur et comburatur, ita quod penitus moriatur et anima a corpore separetur.

Then more men of the church went to visit him and warned him of what would happen, and said: “Brother Michael, the miters and copes have already been made, and painted on them are Fraticelli accompanied by devils.” To frighten him and force him finally to retract. But Brother Michael knelt down and said, “I believe that beside the pyre there will be our father Francis, and I further believe there will be Jesus and the apostles, and the glorious martyrs Bartholomew and Anthony.” Which was a way of refusing for the last time the inquisitors’ offers.

The next morning I, too, was on the bridge before the bishop’s palace, where the inquisitors had gathered. Brother Michael, still in irons, was brought to face them. One of his faithful followers knelt before him to receive his beneiction, and this follower was seized by the men-at-arms and taken at once to prison. Afterward, the inquisitors again read the sentence to the condemned man and asked him once more whether he wished to repent. At every point where the sentence said he was a heretic Michael replied, “I am no heretic; a sinner, yes, but Catholic,” and when the text named “the most venerable and holy Pope John XXII” Michael answered, “No, a heretic.” Then the bishop ordered Michael to come and kneel before him, and Michael said no one should kneel before heretics. They forced him to his knees and he murmured, “God will pardon me.” And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment that the Florentines called a “cioppa.” And as is the custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron and they shaved his head. Then he was handed over to the captain and his men, who treated him very harshly and put him in irons, to take him back to prison, and he said to the crowd, “Per Dominum moriemur.” He was to be burned, as I found out, only the next day.

And on this day they also went to ask him whether he wished to confess himself and receive communion. And he refused, saying it was a sin to accept sacraments from one in a state of sin. Here, I believe, he was wrong, and he showed he had been corrupted by the heresy of the Patarines.

Finally it was the day of the execution, and a gonfalonier came for him, and asked him why he was so stubborn when he had only to affirm what the whole populace affirmed and accept the opinion of Holy Mother Church. But Michael, very harshly, said, “I believe in Christ poor and crucified.” And the gonfalonier went away, making a helpless gesture. Then the captain arrived with his men and took Michael into the courtyard, where the bishop’s vicar reread the confession and the sentence to him.

I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty and I said to myself, if anything, they should fear men who wish to live in wealth and take money away from others, and introduce simoniacal practices into the church. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it. And, he added, the preaching of poverty put the wrong ideas into the heads of the people, who would consider their poverty a source of pride, and pride can lead to many proud acts. And, finally, he said that I should know that preaching poverty for monks put you on the side of the Emperor, and this did not please the Pope. Except that at this point I did not understand why Brother Michael wanted to die so horribly to please the Emperor.

And in fact some of those present were saying, “He is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens, and the Fraticelli are Tuscans but behind them are the Emperor’s agents.” And others said, “He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride, and he enjoys martyrdom for his wicked pride; they make these monks read too many lives of the saints, it would be better for them to take a wife!” And still others added, “No, all Christians should be like him, ready to proclaim their faith, as in the time of the pagans.” As I listened to those voices, no longer knowing what to think myself, it so happened that I looked straight at the condemned man’s face, which at times was hidden by the crowd ahead of me. And I saw the face of a man looking at something that is not of this earth, as I had sometimes seen on statues of saints in ecstatic vision. And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.

But let us go back to the execution, for now all were heading for the place where Michael would be put to death.

The captain and his men brought him out of the gate, with his little skirt on him and some of the buttons undone, and as he walked with a broad stride and a bowed head, reciting his office, he seemed one of the martyrs. And the crowd was unbelievably large and many cried, “Do not die!” and he would answer, “I want to die for Christ.” “But you are not dying for Christ,” they said to him; and he waid, “No, for the truth.” When they came to a place called the Proconsul’s Corner, one man cried to him to pray to God for them all, and he blessed the crowd.

At the Church of the Baptist they shouted to him, “Save your life!” and he answered, “Rum for your life from sin!”; at the Old Market they shouted to him, “Live, live!” and he replied, “Save yourselves from hell”; at the New Market they yelled, “Repent, repent,” and he replied, “Repent of your usury.” And on reaching Santa Croce, he saw the monks of his order on the steps, and he reproached them because they did not follow the Rule of Saint Francis. And some of them shrugged, but others pulled the cowls over their faces to cover them, in shame.

And going toward the Justice Gate, many said to him, “Recant! Recant! Don’t insist on dying,” and he said, “Christ died for us.” And they said, “But you are not Christ, you must not die for us!” And he said, “But I want to die for him.” At the Field of Justice, one said to him he should do as a certain monk, his superior, had done, abjuring; but Michael answered that he would not abjure, and I saw many in the crowd agree and urge Michael to be strong: so I and many others realized those were his followers, and we moved away from them.

Finally we were outside the city and before the pyre appeared, the “hut,” as they called it there, because the wood was arranged in the form of a hut, and there a circle of armed horsemen formed, to keep people from coming too close. And there they bound Brother Michael to the stake. And again I heard someone shout to him, “But what is it you’re dying for?” And he answered, “For a truth that dwells in me, which I can proclaim only by death.”

They lit the fire. And Brother Michael, who had chanted the “Credo,” afterward chanted the “Te Deum.” He sang perhaps eight verses of it, then he bent over as if he had to sneeze, and fell to the ground, because his bonds had burned away. He was already dead: before the body is completely burned it has already died from the great heat, which makes the heart explode, and from the smoke that fills the chest.

Then the whole hut blazed up, like a torch, and there was a great glow, and if it had not been for the poor charred body of Michael, still glimpsed among the glowing coals, I would have said I was standing before the burning bush. And I was close enough to have a view (I recalled as I climbed the steps of the library) that made some words rise spontaneously to my lips, about ecstatic rapture; I had read them in the books of Saint Hildegard: “The flame consists of a splendid clarity, of an unusual vigor, and of an igneous ardor, but possesses the splendid clarity that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn.”

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1774: Daniel Wilson

1 comment April 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1774, Daniel Wilson was hanged before a throng of 12,000 in Providence, Rhode Island, for rape.

A journeyman carpenter turned small-time New England crook, Wilson had a gift for escape and busted out of the Providence jail three times — never retaining his liberty long enough to get clear of the gallows’ shadow. Our friends at the wonderful Early American Crime blog cover the man’s career here … absent the rape, whose particulars seem to have escaped the documentary trail and which Wilson also delicately elides in his hang-day broadsheet.

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

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1708: William Gregg, spy of slob

Add comment April 28th, 2018 Headsman

William Gregg was hanged and quartered on this date in 1708 as a French spy.

Given a recent near-miss prosecution for counterfeiting — his pregnant wife saved Gregg’s bacon by taking the blame, and had her hand branded for the trouble — Gregg wasn’t the type who would get a security waiver in the diplomatic corps nowadays.

But the job market is all about who you know, and Gregg’s father knew the previous Home Secretary.* The young man therefore pulled an impecunious appointment to an underclerkship for that same office under the management of Robert Harley.

Harley was a powerful minister who among other things consummated the tricky union of England and Scotland. He was also — according to the writer Daniel Defoe, whose able quill Harley had obtained by relieving the writer’s debts when they were so heavy as to land him in prison — an inveterate slob. Defoe claims that he reprimanded his boss for the “most complete disorder” in his office, in which strewn everywhere “papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment.”

Gregg was the man who would succumb to the temptation.

Getting by on Bob Cratchit wages, Gregg realized that he was essentially working in a gold mine … and he started selling the bullion to France, by copying interesting documents and sending them abroad.

The treason was detected by a Brussels postmaster late in 1707: evidently Gregg sent his copies to the French ministry with a helpful cover letter identifying himself by name.

This crime had deep political ramifications; Whigs who had within living memory suffered the indignity of seeing their greatest leaders sent to the block by the Tories after the Monmouth rebellion entertained some vivid plans for the Tory Harley once Gregg was arrested.

But the man who would sell his country for gold would not sell his boss for his life. Condemned to die a traitor’s death on January 9, Gregg languished more than three months while Whig lords inveigled him with promises of mercy if he should condescend to expose a wider Tory plot. Gregg staunchly stuck to his story: that it was he alone who committed espionage, and the means was nothing but Harley’s untidiness. The scandal was sufficient to force Harley’s resignation, but Gregg’s failure to cooperate denied Harley’s enemies a wider and bloodier purge.

Gregg was convicted on the statute of Edward III, which declares it high treason ‘to adhere to the king’s enemies, or to give them aid either within or without the realm.’

Immediately after his conviction, both houses of Parliament petitioned the queen that he might be executed; and he accordingly hanged at Tyburn, with Morgridge, on the 28th April, 1708.

Gregg, at the place of execution, delivered a paper to the sheriff of London and Middlesex, in which he acknowledged the justice of his sentence, declared his sincere repentance of all his sins, particularly that lately committed against the queen, whose forgiveness he devoutly implored.

He likewise expressed his wish to make all possible reparation for the injuries he had done; begged pardon in a particular manner of Mr Secretary Harley, and testified the perfect innocence of that gentleman, declaring that he was no way privy, directly or indirectly, to his writing to France. He professed that he died an unworthy member of the Protestant church, and that the want of money to supply his extravagances had tempted him to commit the fatal crime which cost him his life.

-Newgate Calendar

* The Home Office technically only dates to 1782. Its predecessor post as it existed in the first years of the eighteenth century was actually Secretary of State for the Northern Department.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Spies

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1827: Joseph Sollis, the sheriff unmanned

Add comment April 27th, 2018 Headsman

Joseph Sollis was executed in North Carolina on this date in 1827 for murder. It didn’t go so well, apparently leading a regular gawker to pierce the spectacle’s fourth wall and get involved in the action himself.


Article from the May 8, 1827 Raleigh Register

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,North Carolina,Public Executions,USA

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1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1827: Blue Jimmy

Add comment April 25th, 2018 Florence Dugdale

(Thanks to Florence Dugdale-Hardy, wife of gallows aficionado and literary titan Thomas Hardy, for the guest post on horse thief “Blue Jimmy”, whom Thomas Hardy also referenced by name in a poem. We dug up the piece here. -ed.)

Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer

(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)

Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.

The name of “Blue Jimmy” — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above from Mr Thomas Hardy’s ballad “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England. Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women living who can recall their fathers’ reminiscences of him.

To revive the adventures of any notorious horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless to argue.

Jimmy is said to have been, in one account of him, “worth thousands,” in another a “well-to-do” farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them profitably on innocent purchasers.

This was in full view of the fact that in those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize, and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds in each case did not deter him.

He stood nineteen times before my lord judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of sufficient evidence.

Of this long string of trials we may pass over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a ticklish one for Jimmy — in which he escaped, by a hair’s breadth only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had happened was as follows: —

On a December day in 1822 a certain John Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.

They “passed the time of day” to each other, and then, without much preface:

“A fine morning,” says Jimmy cheerfully.

“‘Tis so,” says Mr Wheller.

“We shall have a dry Christmas,” Jimmy continues.

“I think we shall so,” answers Wheller.

Jimmy pulled rein. “Now do you happen to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?” And he turned his eye on the flank of the animal.

“I don’t know that I do.”

“The fact is a friend of mine bought one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don’t want two, I must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen pounds.”

Wheller shook his head, but negotiation proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged for a cart-horse of Wheller’s and three pounds in money.

Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he called “startish” — and, having begun to reflect upon the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller’s own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller wished he had had nothing to do with the “man worth thousands.” He went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel “The Golden Heart” at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.

“I have been looking for you,” said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.

“To get another such bargain, no doubt,” says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too generous fool in his dealings.

“Not at all. I suspect that you did not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and cart-horse, when I’ll return her.”

“Good news for me!” says Jimmy, “for that I’m quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this gentleman. I’ve sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I’ll see if my man is getting ready.”

Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady where her customer, the farmer, lived.

“What farmer?” said the landlady.

“He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his horse put-to.”

“I don’t know that he’s a farmer. He’s got no horse in our stables — he’s quite a stranger here.”

“But he keeps the market here every week?”

“I never saw him before in my life. And I’ll trouble you to pay for your ale, and his likewise, as he didn’t.”

When Wheller reached the yard the “farmer” had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the town.

This looked suspicious, yet after all it might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the mare.

Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a particular mare like Mr Loveridge’s, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.

Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge’s door. “What is the lost mare like?” said Mr Loveridge cautiously.

“She has four black streaks down her right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed’ so” — here he described the shades, gave the particular manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare so peculiarly marked.

The end of the colloquy was that Mr Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse. Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.

During the trial all the crowd in court thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he could not swear positively to any of them.

The learned judge, in summing up, directed the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses. “It was remarkable,” his Lordship observed, “that Wilkins, who was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter, and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been examined.”

In spite of this summing-up people in court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this time; yet the verdict was “Not Guilty,” and we may well imagine the expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy’s countenance as he walked out of the dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact, stolen the mare.

But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was keener even than in the previous one.

Jimmy’s first question had been, “Who is the judge?” and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had tried him before.

“Then I’m a dead man!” said Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.

It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver’s, at the King’s Arms, Dorchester.

Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless she was taken out.

Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house about four o’clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night. (Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were talking; prisoner left next morning.

Robert Mills, husband of the last witness, examined. He reached home about nine o’clock on October 9. He went with Pierce the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who now began to recognise him, said: “Jimmy, I don’t think you came by these horses straight.” He replied, “I don’t know why you address me by the familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington Fair for a black cart-horse.” Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare, and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe’s possession. He examined the mare and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he saw him in Tiverton Prison.

(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.

A witness named Gillard, as he was walking to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the ground between two camps of gipsies.

The prisoner said nothing in his defence, merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.

“A Trampwoman’s Tragedy”
by Thomas Hardy
(Stanza X)

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.

Such was horse-stealing in the ‘twenties of the last century, and such its punishment.

How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness — whether the appellative was suggested to some luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never been explained, and never will be now by any historian.

About a month later, in the same old County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The account appears under the laconic heading, “Execution, Wednesday, April 25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester … Clace appears to have been a very notorious character” (this is a cautious statement of the reporter’s, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). “He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence…. In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52.”

A tradition was till lately current as to his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.

The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the “new drop”: —

“William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned, seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case.”

The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a “new drop,” and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless “flung his last fling” more boldly than many of his betters?

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1752: Nicholas Mooney, penitent thief

Add comment April 24th, 2018 Headsman

From the Boston Gazette, Aug. 4, 1752:


BRISTOL, April 18.

Last Saturday about 4 o’Clock in the Afternoon ended the Assizes for this City and County, when Nicholas Mooney, and John Jones, for robbing Mr. Rich, William Cudmore, for returning from Transportation, and Mary Hoar for stealing six Gold Rings and a Sum of Money out of the Dwelling-house of William Wats, at the Henroost on the Back, received Sentence of Death. — When the Prisoners stood at the Bar to receive their Sentence, Mooney address’d the Judge to the following Effect:

My Lord,

Permit me again to entreat for John Jones, whom I have enveigled and brought into this Trouble, (as I have done several others before) that your Lordship would be pleased to spare his Life. — As for my own Part, I have committed many Robberies, and have been a Rebel against my King, and have wronged my Country by Coining Money, for which I can never make the Publick Restitution, and therefore I am content to die as I deserve. — And I pray GOD to bless every one to whom I have done any Wrong. And if there be any Gentlemen of Bristol here whom I have injur’d, I ask them Forgiveness, and especially Mr. Wasborough, (who then stood near him) whom I attempted to Murder, but God sav’d him, for which I can never praise him enough. — My Lord, I only desire three Sundays, and then I am willing to launch into Eternity. And I hope when I come to the Place of Execution, that GOD will open my Mouth to warn all to flee their wicked Course of Life. — I pray GOD bless your Lordship, and the honourable Court, and may the Lord Jesus receive my Sou.

Bristol, April 25. Yesterday about one o’clock in the Afternoon, Nicholas Mooney, John Jones and William Cudmore, were executed on St. Michael’s Hill, pursuant to their sentences. — During the Time they were under Sentence of Death, they were visited by several Clergymen of the Church of England, and by many other religious People. Mooney behaved in a very becoming Manner all the Time, shewing the most evident Tokens of a sincere Repentance, to all who either came to see or converse with him; informing all, what a wicked Man he had been; but that, thro’ the Merits of his Saviour, he had found the Forgiveness of his Sins, and was not afraid to die. — In this State he continued to the End, declaring at the Tree, That he knew that as soon as his Breath was out of his Body, his Soul would go immediately to Heaven. — After Prayer and Singing were over, he deliver’d to the Sheriff the printed Copy of his Life, signed with his own Hand; declaring as the Words of a dying Man, That it contained nothing but what was true, and which he would have published for the Benefit of Mankind.

When he had done speaking, and the Cart drew under the Gallows, he assisted in pulling the Halter over the Tree to himself, as also to Jones; and after a few Moments Ejaculations, they all launch’d into Eternity. — Jones made no Confession publickly; but we hear he privately confessed to a Gentleman that attended him, That he had such a natural Propensity to Thieving, that he had followed that Practice even from his Youth — Cudmore persisted to the last, that his Father was hang’d, & he transported wrongfully: But notwithstanding this, there are Ltters of Credit in Town, which certify, that both him and his Father were notorious for Horse-stealing. It is remarkable, that while Mooney’s [obscured] was knocking off in Newgate, he pray’d & [obscured] said, Death has no Sting for me: When they were off, he said, Blessed be GOD, I am got rid of the Chains of My Sins; and appeared with such Chearfulness, as though he was going to a Wedding. — When the Hangman put the Halter round his Neck in the Parlour of the Prison, he said, Welcome, Halter, I am saved as the Thief upon the Cross. — And when he came to the Gallows, he also said, Welcome Gallows, for I have deserved thee these many Years. — When the Hangman was going to tie up Jones, Mooney said, Tie me up first, for I am the greatest Offender.

After the Cart drew away, the Hangman very deservedly had his Head broke, for endeavouring to pull off Mooney’s Shoes; and a Fellow had like to have been kill’d in mounting the Gallows to take away the Ropes that were left after the Malefactors were cut down. — A young Woman came 15 Miles for the Sake of the Rope from Mooneys Neck, which was given to her; it being by many apprehended, that the Halter of an executed Person will charm away the Ague, and perform many other Cures.

A little Time before the Criminals went to the Execution, a Person came to Mooney from a Gentleman in the West, from whom he had received great Favours, to tell him he had received a handsome Letter from him, and that he had sent him to condole him in his unhappy Circumstances: He replied, I am happy, — My Time is short. — GOD bless Mr. M–w. — The Letter was this.

Bristol, April 14, 1752.

SIR,

Before I die, I take this Opportunity to acknowledge your Kindness to me in Time past. — Oh! that I had deserved it, for then I had not brought myself into these Circumstances: But GOD is wise, and seeing I would not hear his Voice and turn from any wicked Life, he gave me up to my own Heart’s Lust, and permitted me to fill up the Measure of mine Iniquity, that in me at last might be shewn the Severity of his Justice, and the Riches of his Mercy. — You took me, the most abandon’d Wretch to be an honest Man and as such you kindly and generously recommended me where I might have done well. It is my own Fault I did not. — On Friday 7-night I am to meet the Fate my Crimes have too justly deserved. — I deserve not only Death, but Hell: To the former Man hath doomed me; from the latter Christ will save me. — Of this I have such a firm Hope in myself, being assured that GOD is reconciled to me, (oh! the Riches of his Mercy in Christ Jesus) that my Prison is a Palace, my Chains are Ornaments, and I am quite happy. — I hope every one will pray for me, that my Faith fail not. — I am longing for Death, and in firm Expectation of a glorious Resurrection to eternal Life.

Your much obliged and dying Servant,
Nic. Mooney.

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

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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Murder,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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Feast Day of Saint Leonides of Alexandria

Add comment April 22nd, 2018 Headsman

April 22 is the Christian feast date of Saint Leonides of Alexandria, the patron saint of being surpassed by your children.*

The Christian historian Eusebius recorded of our man in his Ecclesiastical History that

when Severus raised a persecution against the churches, there were illustrious testimonies given by the combatants of religion in all the churches every where. They particularly abounded in Alexandria, whilst the heroic wrestlers from Egypt and Thebais were escorted thither as to a mighty theatre of God, where, by their invincible patience under various tortures and modes of death, they were adorned with crowns from heaven. Among these was Leonides, said to be the father of Origen, who was beheaded, and left his son behind yet very young.

We don’t have much more on Leonides but that son, Origen, was said to have attempted to turn himself in with dad to face missionary martyrdom together; he was only a teenager at the time. His mother forbade the willful boy throwing his life away and it’s a good job she did: Origen went on to become one of Christianity’s seminal** theologians.

(Sadly, a sizable corpus of Origen’s work is lost to history because for a period in later antiquity his thought was denounced as heresy; the Byzantine emperor Justinian had Origen’s writings burned.)

* According to Wikipedia, Leonides is actually the patron saint of “large families” (he had at least six other children besides Origen), which we assume must surely include large sons.

** That’s a little etymological pun, as the reader will discover with an image search on “Origen castration.”

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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