Author Archive

1864: The Andersonville Raiders

1 comment July 11th, 2018 dogboy

It’s not hard to understand why the Andersonville Raiders turned criminal. But on this day in 1864, the group was decapitated when six of its leaders were hanged in a quasi-legal action at the most inhospitable prisoner of war camp in the Confederacy.*

Andersonville Prison was opened in February 1864, 26.5 Georgian acres (about 0.1 square kilometers, or about the size of a square 4 city blocks on a side) of tightly-packed tents with a ditch of water flowing through its center. Its design population was 10-15,000 prisoners; its true population at one point was almost 30,000.** Some 45,000 Union soldiers went in, passing first the outer stockade, then the so-called “dead line” that demarcated the line outside of which they could be shot summarily, and finally into a mass of malnourished, often sickly humanity. Of these, 13,000 never emerged.

The Confederacy, you may recall, was not the war’s winner. As an aspiring nation, the CSA borrowed heavily to fund its arms, then found itself strapped for basic supplies as the war dragged on. By 1863 the nation was already economically depressed, and when a CSA-USA prisoner exchange agreement broke down, the Confederacy found itself with a lot of Union soldiers to house and nowhere to put them. Enter Andersonville: far enough from the North to be “safe”, easily defensible, and in the heart of slave labor to build it. All the Confederacy needed to build some basic housing was wood, which should be … oh wait … war update!…the Union controlled lumber supplies. Guess there won’t be housing.

Prisoners instead got lumped in with their brigade, and (at least initially) basic materials to make some sort of shelter.† New arrivals often showed up without being thoroughly checked over, so they might come in with food and supplies that weren’t already available to other internees.‡ Very quickly, the grounds were littered with Union POWs from around the country, people with vastly different backgrounds and goods. As the camp’s population breached 10,000 and then 20,000,§ there were, of course, inmates with designs on better living.

It’s not hard to see where this is going.

Sometime around May 1864, dozens of them assembled into a loose affiliation. The Raiders were headed by about a half dozen men: Charles Curtis, Patrick Delaney, John Sarsfield, William Collins (“Moseby”), a guy known only as “A. Munn”, and W.R. Rickson (or possibly Terry Sullivan; there’s an unusual disparity in diary accounts on the person’s name, but first-hand diary entries from the moment prefer Rickson) were considered the principal offenders. Each headed a small band of thieves who would trick new entrants, burgle tents, or use violence or threats of violence to amass “wealth” and keep themselves well-fed, well-clothed, and, most importantly to them in this hostile place, alive.

The Raiders had some huge advantages when they committed these crimes. Thanks to their amalgamated resources, they had good odds of being better armed and more fit than their victims — unless those victims were green, in which case they just knew the place better. The thieves started out as midnight raiders who turned tail at the first sign of genuine resistance unless they thought they could readily overpower the victim. By mid-June they were brazen, according to John Ransom: “Raiders … do as they please, kill, plunder and steal in broad day light, with no one to molest them.”

The victims were soldiers who, even if they weren’t killed, were left without resources in a deadly environment. Even the robberies and beatings were, in many cases, a prolonged form of murder, and Union inmates knew it. Indeed, Collins was thought by most to have never directly assaulted anyone, but he was known to steal blankets from the ill.

It’s unclear what the full Raider population was (estimates range from 100 to 500, but most people settle on the 100-200 range). What we can say definitively is that it was large enough to be a problem. Late in June of that year, a group called “the regulators” began taking police-like action against the perpetrators. Inmates brought their complaints to the group, which sought out and punished — usually through head shaving or other non-destructive means — those they found responsible.

On June 29, that problem started getting a real solution when the Raiders assaulted and robbed a prisoner now known only as Dowd. Dowd complained to the guards, and Andersonville’s overseer, Captain Henry Wirz, officially endorsed the Regulators as a police force/tribunal to maintain order. But first he announced an end to inmate rations until the Raiders were given up. (What a guy!)

The Regulators, headed by a man called “Lumber” (or maybe “Limber”) Jim, quickly had 80-100 inmates to deal with. Jury trials were implemented in the spirit of (but without most of the protections of) common law, and most punishments ranged from setting in the stocks to running the gauntlet.


Detail of a panorama sketch of Andersonville (click to see it) makes space for a certain well-attended sextuple hanging.

The ringleaders were also among this bunch. They were assembled on July 11 and executed at a hastily-erected gallows on the north end of camp. As far as the POWs were concerned, the ultimate crime of the Raiders was a violation of the soldier code of death before dishonor. Their bodies were buried separately from other inmates, and the US makes a point of placing no memorial flags at their graves.

To be clear, the Andersonville Raiders were, for most inmates, not the primary problem but an obviously controllable one. Remember that 30% of the interned died, and for the most part those deaths were borne of bad sanitation, hunger, and disease. The removal of the Raiders was a morale boost at best, as Andersonville was still a pee-pee soaked heckhole in which another 10,000 soldiers would die before liberation in May 1865, most of them before the summer’s end.

* It was also known as Camp Sumter, named after the county it resided in.

** The population density at peak was 330,000 people per square kilometer. For comparison, the world’s densest city is Manila, at about 71,000 people per square kilometer.

† It turns out the term “shebang” wasn’t widely-used camp lingo. Drawings and photos of the camp illustrate the variety of dwellings: open sleeping, simple V-tents, structured tents, lean-tos, huts, and shacks were all scattered about the grounds.

‡ They also came with new diseases.

§ The original camp was actually only 16.5 acres, and the population ballooned to 20,000 in early June and 33,000 in August of that year. Ransom notes that the stockade was “enlarged” on July 6. Fall transfers dropped the number to 1,500 and it bumped back up to 5,000 until war’s end. Sanitation issues persisted throughout.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , ,

1883: Not Alferd (sic) Packer, #nerdprom attendee

Add comment May 19th, 2018 dogboy

The National Press Club is probably best known for its White House Correspondent’s Dinner. This site prefers to think of it as the site of the Alferd Packer plaque, a memorial to a cannibal who avoided hanging.


(cc) image from Kurt Riegel.

The plaque is rather unassuming, its simple polished brass declaring: “The Alferd Packer Memorial Grill — In Memory of Stan Weston 1931-1984.” Weston was the public affairs officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who came up with a 1977 contest to name the USDA’s new cafeteria. But hold that thought for now.

Packer was born in Pennsylvania in 1842. He made his way west and joined the Union Army in Minnesota, then ambled on into the Rockies as a pioneer after the Civil War. In a particularly stunning feat of incompetence, he and five others separated from a larger expedition and tried to make it across a mountain pass in January 1874. Three months later, Packer arrived on the other side, declaring that he got separated from the other five.

But Packer had taken money and effects from them, which made the remaining members of his expedition more than a little suspicious. Caught out in a lie, Packer confessed to a carnivorous progress through his comrades: Israel Swan froze to death, and he was eaten; James Humphreys died a few days later, and he was eaten; then Frank Miller was likely murdered and eaten; and George “California” Noon fell to the pistol of Wilson Bell. With Bell armed and dangerous, Packer claims to have killed him and taken a bit of a snack for the road.*

Packer was arrested shortly after his return, but he slipped his bonds and escaped to Wyoming. There the law finally caught up to him. He was returned to Colorado, where a judge sentenced the cannibal to death.

The hanging was not to be. Packer appealed the conviction, which was ultimately overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court; on retrial he was remanded for a 40-year prison sentence instead. He was paroled in 1901, took a job as a guard at the Denver Post (who had, incidentally, helped him make parole), and died in 1907.

Back to the memorial grill.

Why would the USDA honor such an odd historical figure? Politics.

In 1977, newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland had a beef with the General Service Administration, which refused to terminate the Nixon-era contract award for cafeteria services and food. Bergland’s response? Let the disgruntled employees name** and shame. The USDA cafeteria became the Packer Memorial Grill,† and Bergland paraded the press through the facility, taking every opportunity to point out just how similar he felt the food was to the diet of the honoree.

The contract was rescinded later in 1977. The plaque, meanwhile, was taken off the wall just a week after its installation. Initially, the GSA claimed it was not approved prior to installation, but it turns out the building manager, a GSA employee named Melvin Schick, simply found the name distasteful.

All of which begs the question of how it ended up gracing the National Press Club’s bar, emblazoned with Stan Weston’s name. The answer probably lies in Wesley McCune, founding member of the “Friends of Alferd Packer” and member of the National Press Club. Schick returned the plaque to Weston after the goings-on at the USDA cafeteria, and Weston hung it in his office. McCune’s group met most Aprils to hold an Alferd Packer dinner at the National Press Club. Stanley D Weston died in July of 1984, and while it’s unclear when the plaque went up, by 1989, this unusual object had a permanent home.

* A memorial was placed at Cannibal Plateau in the 1920s.

** The plaque was originally purchased by Bob Meyer and Stan Weston.

† And it wasn’t the first! The University of Colorado has had an Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill since 1968.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Colorado,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1919: Not Joseph Cohen

Add comment December 10th, 2015 dogboy

This day in 1919 was the closest Joseph Cohen came to the electric chair in Sing Sing. His walk may have been 7 minutes, or possibly 11 minutes, away, but Cohen was not to die this day at the hands of the State of New York, nor at the hands of any state on any day. Instead, he would be gunned down 13 years later as a free man.

Cohen was a wealthy, influential poultry merchant in New York City, and he had a bone to pick with fellow poultryman Barnet Baff, also known as the “Poultry King”. Baff had repeatedly rebuffed other poultry merchants in their efforts to fix prices and charge an exorbitant per-truck fee for poultry handling. That was probably because Baff was making this kind of bonus cash by feeding starving chickens sand and gravel immediately before slaughter. His shady practice was great for sale and terrible for resale.

This did him no favors among other poulters of the city.

By 1913, Baff had become the target of the collective ire of several people in the poultry industry, including Cohen, Ippolito Greco, Tony Zaffarano, and Antonio Cardinale — and possibly still more rivals in the New York Live Poultry Dealers’ Association. That year, a cadre of poultry merchants took up a collection to either frighten or kill Baff.*

Initially, a bomb was placed at his home, allegedly only to “frighten” him. In August of the following year, with Baff insufficiently frightened, the group actively sought to kill their target. At least one attempt was foiled, but on November 24, Baff was gunned down at the West Washington Market in Harlem.**

(c.f. this book for information.)

The murder nearly ended in a trio of executions and several long prison sentences. Instead, it cost just two men modest prison terms and uncovered the sordid underbelly of New York poultry sales.

Details about what actually happened are muddled significantly by various parties coaching witnesses in testimony.† As the story unfolded in the press, several investigators were accused of trying to push blame from Italians to Jews. Ultimately, the New York Attorney General managed to build up a case against several major players in the New York poultry scene and the then-lightweight New York mob scene.

The first break came in 1916 when Carmine diPaolo was arrested for an assault in the Bronx. He mentioned to police that he had been approached by Greco about carrying out the murder, but had backed out before it could be finished. DiPaolo then saw Giuseppe Archiello get paid by Greco after the killing. Archiello’s interrogation implicated Frank Ferrara, Cardinale, Zaffarano, Greco, and Greco’s brother, but it did not point to a source of the estimated $4,500 that was dispersed among the participants in the murder. Archiello was tagged as one of the gunmen and sentenced to death.

Ferrara was next on the docket, charged with driving the getaway car for the two killers. This was when Gaetano Reina was fingered as the other gunman. Ferrara’s story changed repeatedly and significantly, though, and he later insisted that Reina’s name had been fed to him. Ferrara’s conviction led to a death sentence that the state hoped to use to get Ferrara to name names at the top of the food chain.

The breakthrough witness was Cardinale, who had joined the Italian Army during World War I but was involved in the plots against Baff from the start. He was taken to New York by way of a somewhat shaky international agreement that circumvented the American/Italian extradition treaty, and his lawyer — not coincidentally the same as the lawyer for Ferrara and Archiello — convinced him to give up the big names: Joseph D. Cohen, brother of Chief Chicken Inspector Harry Cohen (aka “Kid Griffo”); his brother Jacob Cohen; Moses “Chicken Moe” Rosenstein; David Jacobs; William Simon; and Abe Graff. (Cardinale smartly moved back to Italy after giving testimony.)

Ferrara also decided to “come clean”, telling investigators that Ignazio “Jack” Dragna and Ben “Tita” Rizzotta were in his getaway vehicle. He also noted that he had left this duo out of his original story for fear of reprisal, going with the state-fed names of the gunmen instead.

The six conspirators were brought into court, with the court leaning on testimony of Cardinale, Ferrara, and Joseph Sorro, whom Cardinale said was also involved in several attempts to intimidate Baff. Simon’s indictment was thrown out, while Jacob Cohen and Jacobs were acquitted. Rosenstein pled guilty and helped New York gain a death sentence for Cohen and 10-20 years for Graff.

The convicted Cohen went after the state repeatedly, pointing out the massive inconsistencies in the witness testimony that led to his indictment and conviction. Indeed, Cardinale — who dragged Cohen into this in the first place — claimed two gunmen, neither of whom was currently in Sing Sing. Sorro, meanwhile, was brought up on multiple perjury charges.

Cohen’s execution was postponed seven times, then commuted to life in prison on February 4, 1920, by Governor Al Smith. Cohen was released on November 24, 1921. Officially, he could have been retried, but the state refused.

Archiello’s lawyer‡ insisted that, thanks to Sorro’s perjury, it was no longer clear that Archiello was a gunman. The court agreed to a second trial, and Archiello — who had significant connections in the Harlem mob — pled guilty to manslaughter, receiving a suspended sentence instead of death.

Meawhile, Dragna, Rizzotta, and Reina all walked. Dragna moved to Los Angeles and headed the Los Angeles crime family until the 1950s; he may have had a hand in former leader Joseph Ardizzone’s disappearance. Reina became kingpin of the Lucchese crime family in Brooklyn, and got killed by Lucky Luciano.

The Baff murder was atypical in the mob world, in that it featured Italian families doing their dirty work in the traditionally non-Italian field of poultry. The unusual arrangement made the murder an awkward affair that uncomfortably exposed a lot of powerful people. Organized crime was significantly more, well, organized by the time that Prohibition rolled around, and future gangland business murders were handled with a more diligent eye toward shielding bankrollers from blame.

Cohen and Jacob opened up a tailor shop in Manhattan, which put them right in the Italian mafia’s business wheelhouse. He and brother Barney were both shot to death in 1932, and their killers have never been identified.

* In an unusual twist to this already twisted case, Baff may have even partially paid for his own murder.

** Baff was killed just weeks after 18 members of Cohen’s Live Poultry Dealers’ Protective Association were indicted on fraud and racketeering charges.

† The state even employed one Philip Musica, a sort of proto-Barry Minkow with his own zany criminal story. His first foray into business was attempting to sell $250 of human hair to the tune of some $370,000. It’s not clear what the link between “Step 1: Get Hair” and “Step 3: Profit” was, but his misrepresentation of the goods was enough to earn him a federal sentence. Musica spent little time in prison, turning instead into a paid investigator in New York State’s employ during the Baff affair.

He jumped straight to Step 3 for his services and retired around 1916. Musica changed his name to Frank Donald Coster and in 1920 started Girard & Co. — a hair tonic company that was likely a front for a bootlegging operation. Right around the time the old Musica was indicted for perjury in the Baff case, F. Donald Coster bought the pharmaceutical company McKesson & Robbins. Musica expanded its drug enterprise but also did side business of building up paper assets and phantom sales to bolster the company’s apparent value by about $18m. It came crashing down when the company’s treasurer tried to find out why McKesson & Robbins didn’t insure their drug warehouse (turns out “it doesn’t exist” isn’t a good reason to give your accountant).

Musica committed suicide in 1938 as federal agents closed in, and the episode spawned new accounting regulations. McKesson is now the 14th-largest business in the U.S.

‡ The lawyer for Archiello and Cardinale, Walter Rogers Deuel, was brought up by the New York State Bar Association for suborning perjury, but he continued to practice law. And Deputy Attorney General Alfred Becker, who, according to one article, “was conspicuous during the war for uncovering German and Red plots,” was also accused of misconduct, though nothing appears to have come of that charge.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Not Executed,Organized Crime,Pardons and Clemencies,Pelf,USA

Tags: , ,

995: Tormod Kark

1 comment July 16th, 2015 dogboy

On an unrecorded date in 995, Norwegian slave Tormod Kark became the first person beheaded under King Olaf I of Norway.

A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.

Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.

Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.

Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.

Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.

Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)

With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.

Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.

Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.

Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.

Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.

And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.

Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.

Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:

Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’

The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason


* Bluetooth is, indeed, the namesake of the protocol that wirelessly unites mobile devices and computers. Scandanavian companies made it, so they gave it both a historically interesting name and a historically symbolic ligature logo (representing the “H” and “B”).

** Bluetooth’s daughter, Thyra or Tyra or Thyri, eventually became a consort to King Olaf I.

† Olaf I became known for his … er … creative executions for heathens.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Norway,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1584: Balthasar Gerard, assassin of William the Silent

1 comment July 14th, 2013 dogboy

“If you succeed in your enterprise, the King will fulfill all his promises, and you will gain an immortal name besides.”

Christoffel d’Assonleville, to Balthasar Gérard

After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.

Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.

A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.

The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.

For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.

That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.

Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†

When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.

In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.

The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.

It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.

Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.

In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.

With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.

Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.

Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.

Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.


Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.

This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.

And, oh, how he was punished.

The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.

But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:

It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.


Gerard’s execution.

For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.

Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.

* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.

** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.

† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.

‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, escaped into exile, though others of the Hamilton clan answered for the murder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Lawyers,Murder,Netherlands,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1876: Four for the Mutiny on the Lennie

1 comment May 23rd, 2013 dogboy

As criminals go, the Lennie mutineers were neither organized nor gifted. Indeed, they likely did not fancy themselves mutineers when they perpetrated a triple-murder of the officer corps on board the vessel during high seas.

Matteo Cargalis, Pascalis Caludis, George Kaida, and Giovanni Carcaris were hanged on this date for that “atrocious conspiracy” in Newgate prison’s largest mass execution behind closed doors.

As they say, you get what you pay for, and Captain Stanley Hatfield apparently didn’t pay too well. His ragtag crew of multinationals — Turks, Greeks, Dutch, Belgians, and possibly others (Hatfield himself was a Canadian) — was in it for the money when the vessel left Antwerp bound for New Orleans on 24 October 1875.

The circumstances of the mutiny’s start are hazy, but what is clear is that the entire ship’s complement excluding first officer, cabin boy, and steward were on deck in heavy seas about 10 days out. What seems to have been a minor labor dispute resulted in Hatfield and Second Mate Richard Macdonald being summarily dispatched by stabbing; the first mate, Joseph Wortley, was sought out below and shot in his quarters.

Since the crew was all in now, the murderers and a small group of associates pressed the remainder of the deckhands into service. The two remaining persons belowdecks were now let out. The Belgian steward, Constant von Hoydonck (spelled in various ways, but Anglicized in what seems to be the most popular way), and the cabin boy, Henri Trousselot, were given the option to join the rest of the crew.

To the now-leaderless and ill-educated rebellious deck crew, Von Hoydonck’s literacy made him was the best hope of finding safe harbor, and Von Hoydonck hammed it up like Mark Hamill going on about Tosche Station.

Trousselot was worth little (though he was also literate), and he gamely followed Von Hoydonck’s lead and elected to join the mutineers.

The rest of the tale reads like a Hardy Boys story, with an implausible plot built around incompetent characters.

Apparently, one of the Greek crew members knew someone back home that he felt would be interested in the vessel, so the crew now had a “plan”. All they needed was a quick trip through the Strait of Gibraltar followed by a trip across the Mediterranean, and they were home free! Von Hoydonck volunteered to navigate the course to the Strait, but rather than head southeast, he led the ship straight back toward the French coast.

The details of the voyage, embellished and colorfully littered with age-appropriate judgments about Greeks, were handled by the newspaper “The Age” in 1958:

When France was sighted he brazenly told them it was Spain, and sailed along the coast.

When they asked why he hugged the shore, he told them it was to avoid the chief traffic routes and the consequent danger of being hailed by another ship…

By November 14 he had navigated the Lennie between the Isle of Rhe and the French mainland. In spite of rough seas he brought the ship almost within hailing distance of the short and then calmly ordered the anchor to be let go.

This was carried out promptly enough by the slow-thinking mutineers, but after some ten minutes what intelligence they had started to function, and they swarmed round remanding to know why they were at anchor.

[Von Hoydonck] surveyed them coldly and pointed out that that the coast of Spain (which, of course, was some 250 miles away) was rocky and dangerous, and as they could not risk standing out into the traffic lanes they must anchor here until the heavy sea subsided.

The mutineers were not satisfied with this explanation and angrily threatened to send him after the ship’s officers.

[Von Hoydonck], playing his part superbly, indignantly informed them that as they seemed to have so little faith in his handling of the ship they could sail her themselves. He then went below, slamming the companion door behind him as if in a temper.

Von Hoydonck then had Trousselot write up notices of the mutiny in French, English, and Dutch; these letters were placed in a dozen or more bottles and slipped out a port hole, hopefully to quickly reach shore. Meanwhile, the mutineers decided they really needed that navigationally competent steward and urgently repaired relations with him.

The storm subsided during the night and Von Hoydonck got some sleep. By morning, the mutineers had taken the initiative, and they rounded the Isle of Rhe and traced down the Isle of Oleron toward a lighthouse that — to the geographically confused crew — looked mighty like the Pillars of Hercules.

Unfortunately, it failed to meet the one critical test: the pinch of island and shore lacked the distinctive Rock of Gibraltar.


… and Gibraltar’s distinctive Barbary Apes.

Von Hoydonck offered the lame excuse that, instead of risking the Mediterranean, he had led them to a nearly uninhabited part of the French coast, where they could get off the boat without risk of being found out. Six of the more aggressive members of the mutineers took this bait, so they hopped a life boat and scuttled to shore.

Five mutineers now remained, and none of them was particularly big on the cause. So Von Hoydonck followed up his successful bluff by clambering up the rigging in the dead of night to raise the flag of distress. He then took to the deck with a pair of revolvers and waited for morning.

The bottles had done their job, and the French man-of-war Tirailleur was dispatched immediately when authorities heard of the trouble; her crew quickly spotted the Lennie.

The six who had gone ashore were almost as swiftly rounded up on the mainland.

In all, eight of the 11 on board were put on trial, and only the four implicated directly in the murders of the officers were found guilty* and sentenced to death.

At the time, the Lennie was quite well-known; the actions of Von Hoydonck were celebrated in the local press, and the crown awarded Von Hoydonck 50 pounds for his actions.**

Strangely, the ship’s story has slipped into obscurity,† perhaps because reality in this case sounds like a plot written for 8-year-olds.

* Though the vessel’s occupants had mutinied, the British had the crew extradited under charges of murder. Two of the defendants were released by the technicalities of the extradition treaty.

** Constant von Hoydonck went on to own a pub in Middlesex and was bankrupt by 1892. Henri Trousselot moved to New Zealand, where he and others are memorialized for attending to a double shipwreck in Timaru; he lived to 66.

† The Record of Yarmouth Shipping reports that the Lennie was refitted and carried on to New Orleans with a new crew.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Mutiny,Other Voices

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1629: Jeronimus Cornelisz and other Batavia mutineers

2 comments October 2nd, 2012 dogboy

It was 2 Oct 1629, Dutchman Jeronimus Cornelisz was noosed along with 15 other men by the Dutch East Indies Company for a reign of terror that included mutiny and murder off the coast of Australia.* Six others would eventually hang in the infamous affair, two marooned on the Australian mainland, and many more punished for the gruesome atrocities committed on the Southern Ocean.

Cornelisz was not such an assuming character when he boarded the vessel Batavia in 1628.

This definitive history of the Batavia mutiny is by one of the web’s best history bloggers, Mike Dash. He reprinted an interview largely about this book here.

Rather, he was a marginally failed merchant, someone who could buy his way on board as an under-merchant** and sail to the southern seas for the prospect of a new life. It has been speculated (here, for instance) that his move to Indonesia was motivated by a desire to put oceanic distances between himself — an apothecary who couldn’t make it in Haarlem — and prosecutors pursuing Anabaptists and other heretics. It didn’t help, either, that his infant child had recently died of the disgracing condition of syphilis. All that is enough to send a man to Indonesia, apparently.

Though Cornelisz was not a successful businessman, he was an energetic protagonist from his own station in life and could, eventually, win over any suggestible person with his intelligence and wit. It didn’t take long to do just that to the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz — who already held a grudge against the Batavia‘s upper-merchant (and fleet commander), Francisco Pelsaert.

In due time their thoughts turned to the ship’s valuable cargo — silver and trade goods headed for the Mughal Empire. As night follows day, the next thoughts turned to mutiny.

Cornelisz pulled in people from each of the major groups onboard† to help with his mutiny without attracting the attention of the Pelsaert. All the plot needed was a kickstart to turn enough people against the commander.

In the part where the villain reveals his plot, Cornelisz’s goes like this: A group of hooded mutineers assaults the mostly widely lusted-after woman among the socialite passengers, Lucretia (Creesje) Jans; once the assault is reported, the commander must respond; but if the assailants are well-hidden, he must make an example arbitrarily, which pushes his men towards mutiny.

And, like a movie villain’s evil plot, Cornelisz’s didn’t come off.

The captain punished nobody for the assault, as Creesje could not identify the assailants. The shipboard mutiny withered on the vine. But lucky for Cornelisz, the captain had no inkling that the ship’s under-merchant was involved — though he was pretty sure the skipper and boatswain had something to do with it.

In the midst of those days of planned insurrection, the Batavia hit a slightly larger speed bump. On June 4, the vessel ran aground on Morning Reef.

There were few casualties from the initial crash, and the remainder escaped in groups, crammed onto small coral islands in the remote but plausibly survivable Houtman Abrolhos chain off the west coast of Australia.

The ship’s complement was eventually transferred to Beacon Island and Traitors Island — with limited water (but plenty of silver!), it was clear to Pelsaert there would be few people left if they didn’t get some help. Off went the captain with 47 crew and passengers in a longboat, leaving more than 250 behind to fend for themselves on the isles.

Two months later, Pelsaert found himself in the colonial city Batavia (today, the Indonesian capital Jakarta) appealing to the local authorities at the Dutch East Indies Company for a ship to rescue his stranded crew and passengers. He was quickly given the Sardam — another vessel in his fleet — with a skeleton crew to pick up the passengers (oh, and all that silver).

But he wasn’t going to need all those passenger quarters.

Cornelisz, as under-merchant, had technical rank in the emergency, and he had taken over the situation at the islands when the commander left. The refugee pharmacist reveled in the power, certainly amplified by the dozen chests of treasure the Batavia carried.

So here’s your motivation: a fortune in booty and the South Seas as your playground. This is the stuff of rum wishes and buccaneer dreams.

And Lord of the Flies nightmares.

Sensing the the time was ripe to lighten the group’s victual needs, Cornelisz‡ sent 15 men to search a larger island visible to the west for water. This journey, Cornelisz was convinced, would be fruitless, so any possible power rivals he could find went off. As well, Cornelisz shipped a larger group to Long Island to get more space.

And then began the killing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a 1647 engraving of the carnage on Beacon Island. Cornelisz had a good 110 homicides on his soul’s account by the time it was all said and done.

Some 20 mutineers formed a tight inner circle with fantasies of having their way on the island until the rescue boat could be commandeered for piracy. The purpose of the killings was simply to knock the number of residents down closer to 40 or 45 so that the mutineers would be overwhelmingly dominant when the rescue boat came. That’s a tough task when starting with almost 200 people.

At first, killings proceeded under faux-juridical cover: theft and slander were enough to endanger everyone in these cramped quarters, so Cornelisz would have his men claim illegal activities were afoot and kill one or more of the people he considered either threats or non-entities among the group.

A few loyal footsoldiers did most of the killing, along with some pressed into service with the threat of violence; pretty soon the numbers on the island had dwindled noticeably.

With vague ideas of riches and a growing bloodlust, killing essentially became sport. Families were done to death wholesale, by whatever means were available — drowning, slitting throats, bludgeoning. Those liable to fight back might be jumped by a group at the beach, sometimes getting all of the above.

And before you go thinking murder was the only thing the mutineers had on their minds, they retained at least a few women (including Creesje) as private consorts.


Now is the time to mention that Cornelisz was personally acquainted with notorious (and then-imprisoned) degenerate artist Johannes van der Beeck. This is van der Beeck’s Faun and Nymphs.

But remember those doomed guys searching for water two islands over?

Turns out they found it, along with ample food, and they were now occupying the largest island in the chain.

They, along with 30 or so who escaped Cornelisz’s clutches over the course of two months, were the Resistance, and they were full of incriminating knowledge about what had been going down over on psycho isle.

One of the original group, Wiebbe Hayes, had taken charge of the island’s affairs, and he had done quite well. Those living on what is now known as West Wallabi Island were far better off than their Beacon counterparts.

Back on Beacon, Cornelisz was forced to ration water — even to his favorites — and had thoughts that the High Islanders might scupper his search party takeover plot. So late in July, he sent an amphibious landing team to attack High Island. Cornelisz’s men were met with a line of opposition at the beach, armed with pikes made of driftwood with nails. The mutineers retreated.

Weeks later, Assault II began; like most sequels, it fell on its face. Assault III, Cornelisz decided, should include cunning, cunning like an ostensible negotiation to trade the clothing Cornelisz had hoarded for water and food.

Hayes was even a little more cunning that that, and when Cornelisz and his four top lieutenants came ashore and began sweet-talking, he and his men seized four of them. (The fifth, Wouter Loos, escaped.)

Knowing that having mutineers on his island would be trouble, Hayes convened his council, which swiftly decided to dispatch any prisoner not named Jeronimus: that one was tossed in a pit and given birds to pluck for Hayes’ army.

Two weeks went by before the mutineers (now led by Loos) got up the courage to attack again, but by the time they took to the channels and began a long-range gun assault, the Sardam was in the archipelago. Hayes got to Pelsaert first and informed him of the planned mutiny. Pelsaert trained all his weapons on the mutineers’ boat until they decided to disarm.

The trials were done in the Dutch way, including some amount of torture. Pelsaert finally decided he had enough evidence against the mutineers, and his small tribunal passed 16 death sentences. (One was commuted to exile.) That included a half dozen who had one or more hands lopped off before their passage to the gallows.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the mutineers’ execution.

Three weeks later, when the Sardam returned to Batavia, five more of the rescued mutineers were executed, and a sixth — the boatswain involved in the assault on Creesje — was put to death while Pelsaert was out.

Once word got out, Cornelisz’s heinous crimes were known around the world and Southern sailors heard the tales for hundreds of years to come.

Pelsaert, meanwhile, was partly blamed for the incident and saw the Company seize his assets: he was dead within a year. As for Hayes, he was promoted, but his further adventures are unknown.

The remains of the shipwreck that commenced this hecatomb are still visible at Houtman Abrolhos, from cannons off the original Batavia to the fort built by Wiebbe Hayes and his men — everyday monuments to a hellish ordeal.

* Technically the first European settlers in Australia.

** Dutch merchant vessels were headed by an upper-merchant, who had control over decisions on the ship and represented the overriding interest of the Dutch United East India Company. In addition, an under-merchant was taken aboard as his second-in-command Company man. The skipper was considered head of the crew and placed in charge of navigational concerns, but his role was subordinate to the upper-merchant.

† Like all Dutch merchant vessels, the Batavia featured four major classes of people on board:

  • a standard crew to run the vessel;
  • a complement of soldiers who were generally kept below-decks but could be recruited to maintain order and would disembark at the destination;
  • a group which tended to shipboard needs (surgeon, cook, and so on);
  • and merchants and passengers, who had social standing over the rest.

‡ Technically, Cornelisz was part of a three-member council in charge of the shipwrecked. The initial council was selected from among the socially significant survivors, but Cornelisz used his rank to quickly dissolve that group and appoint two of his own future mutineers as his cohorts. Needless to say, the judiciary wasn’t independent after that.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,At Sea,Australia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Murder,Mutiny,Netherlands,Other Voices,Piracy,Power,Rape,Theft,Torture

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1675: The murderers of John Sassamon, precipitating King Philip’s War

2 comments June 8th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1675, Puritan colonists’ hanging of three Wampanoag Indians helped trigger a brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, King Philip’s War.

The condemned men’s victim, Wassausmon — known by his Christian, Anglicized name of John Sassamon — was a converted Massachuseuk, briefly a Harvard attendee (1653)*, and eventually a translator for several tribes when dealing with the early settlers. Sassamon fought on the colonists’ side during the Pequot War, which has graced these pages before, and was generally seen as very sympathetic to the colonial cause, at one point becoming a schoolmaster at the inception of the towns of Natick and Ponkapoag.

After his work as a translator, Sassamon returned to the Puritan fold to become a minister in the Plymouth Colony.

Because of his high position in both the white and native worlds, though, he drew some resentment from both sides. It was Sassamon’s sense of loyalty to both sides of the growing tension between the natives and colonists that led to his demise.

King Philip (natively known as Metacomet) became head (Sachem) of the Wampanoag Confederacy in 1662 after his brother’s death.

Though initially trade-friendly with the burgeoning colonies to the north and east, the Wampanoag were also feeling the squeeze from the Iroqouis Confederation gaining power to the west. In 1671, the colonies presented the Wampanoag with an ultimatum: give up their arms and submit to English law, or be forced out.

The colonists had tried this tactic before with the Pequot (hence the Pequot War), Narragansett, and other native tribes with great success. As expected, Philip blinked, and the English moved in.

But the Sachem was predictably unhappy with the relationship. Three years later, he had assembled a band of warriors and was ready to, er, renegotiate.

Sassamon got wind of Philip’s planned attack on Plymouth Colony and warned its governor Josiah Winslow. Two months later, Sassamon was fished out from under the ice of Assawompset Pond.

With one witness claiming that a trio of King Philip’s men had knocked off the translator and dumped the corpse, the Puritans became convinced that Philip was already getting involved in their affairs.

In June 1675, four months after Sassamon’s body was found, a mixed jury of Indians and colonists convicted three Pokanoket Indians of murdering Sassamon, and on June 8, they were hanged.**

The executions helped bring tensions to the breaking point, and Philip decided it was his time.

On June 18, he launched an attack on homesteads in Swansea, and the war was on. The colonists struck back, laying siege to Mount Hope with the thought of gutting the insurgency by capturing its leader. That move failed, and King Philip escaped to recruit more tribes to his cause. Eventually, the forces included five major native tribes fighting colonists and two other major tribes.

Things got ugly fast: the conflict would become one of North America’s bloodiest colonial wars, and touch everyone who lived in the region. In September, the New England Confederation officially declared war on the Native Americans of the area.

After suffering months of casualties, the colonists finally gained a foothold in the conflict in December. By spring, King Philip’s War was in full swing, with atrocities happening on both sides. But the native forces were being worn down, and the colonists began clawing back. Despite rampant destruction of towns across the colonies (including complete abandonment of a dozen or more), the colonists had fortresses to retreat to and boats to resupply them; the natives needed to trade with the colonists to get their arms. The situation was unsustainable, and when Canadian supply lines fell through, King Philip’s adventure was over.

Persistent enemies of many of the raiding tribes, the Plymouth-allied Mohegans took the offensive and broke up Philip’s warrior bands, scattering them across the Northeast. By the following summer, the Narragansett were defeated and dispersed, and the colonists were granting amnesty to natives who surrendered and could document non-participation. (Others were not so lucky.) In July, King Philip himself was isolated and on the run, taking refuge in Mount Hope. It was there that John Alderman, a Native American, shot him on August 12, 1676.


1857 Harpers magazine engraving of the attack on King Philip’s last redoubt.

Philip’s body was mutilated: he was quartered and beheaded, and his head was displayed in Plymouth Colony Fort for years to come.

After the war, Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by Philip’s men, wrote a memoir about her experience. Philip’s escapades were also later made into a play.

* Harvard, founded in 1636, started its “Indian Harvard” in 1655 which saw a total of five students: Caleb Cheeshahteamuck (Aquinnah Wampanoag) took a degree in 1665 and died of tuberculosis a year later; classmate Joel Iacoombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag) disappeared in a shipwreck off Nantucket before walking; John Wampus (Aquinnah Wampanoag) bailed after a year and went to sea; and Benjamin Larnell and an otherwise unnamed “Eleazer” caught smallpox and died the year they enrolled.

** One account reports that only two of the Indians died on the first drop; the third was spared by his rope breaking, and after confessing the guilt of all three, he was re-executed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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

1821: Owen Coffin, main course

5 comments February 6th, 2011 dogboy

On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.

Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.

Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.

The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.

Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.


A 1902 photograph of whalers cutting into a sperm whale’s jaw. (cc) image from Curious Expeditions.

There Once Was a Crew from Nantucket

At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.

The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.

The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.

The Essex being rammed by a sperm whale, sketched by crewmember Thomas Nickerson.

And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.

The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.

These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.

The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.

The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.

But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.

Call Me Ishmael

Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.

The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.

The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.

The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.

Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.

One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.

Cannibal Corpse

Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.

The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.

Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.

The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.

Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.

Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*

The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”

Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.

Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.

Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.

A few books about the Essex

The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**

It is also suspected that a portion of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel† The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is based on the Essex disaster.

Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.

Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.

* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.

** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.

Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.

‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Chosen by Lot,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Massachusetts,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Volunteers

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher

4 comments January 28th, 2011 dogboy

Wanted: corpses. Apply to Doctor Robert Knox, MD, FRSCEd, Professor of Medical Studies, Barclay’s Medical College, Surgeon’s Square, Edinburgh. Reference William Burke, hanged Jan. 28, 1829.

Robert Knox was a noted physician in his prime, in the early 1800s.

A surgeon, anatomist, and zoologist, Knox studied anatomy in London, then headed off to Africa in the army. Field surgery was a brutal business, and the poor anatomical knowledge at the time made it even more terrifying for those involved.

In 1821, Knox moved to France to work in the shadow of his heroes, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire; a year later, he was back in Edinburgh, making himself a career academic.

When his old professor came calling in 1826 with an opportunity to teach at Surgeon’s Square in Edinburgh, Knox jumped at the chance. As a partner to Barclay and curator of the school’s museum, Knox was well aware of the significant problem that faced the school: corpses were hard to come by.

And since the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh certified the school as a prep course for entrance to University, coming up with bodies became a very important task.

If there’s one way to ruin your career, it’s to be caught paying a few pounds for fresh murder victims.

So it was for Knox, who gave out 7 pounds, 10 shillings for the body of an itinerant lodger who died in William Burke’s building in 1827.

This transaction led Burke to realize that such lodgers weren’t paying as much alive as dead. As a collector of bodies, Knox also had a strict no-questions-asked policy, and Burke and his partner William Hare exploited that to its fullest extent.

Almost a score of suspicious bodies later (and after the price had inflated to 10 pounds per), the pair was found out, given away as suspects by the lame and mentally disabled “Daft Jamie” Wilson, then caught when the late Marjory Campbell Docherty was found by a fellow tenant under one of Burke’s lodge’s beds.

Hare copped to a string of murders* and played stool pigeon in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Burke went to the gallows to “vehement cheering from every quarter, mingled with groans and hisses.” (London Times, Feb. 2, 1829)

“When the cheers had subsided, the wretched man was assailed with every epithet of contempt and abhorrence,” the Times continued. “Not a single indication of pity was observable among the vast crowd: on the contrary, every countenance wore the lviely aspect of a gala-day.”


William Burke’s hanging.

As a corpse himself, Burke made one final contribution to science’s insatiable desire for bodies: his cadaver went straight from the gallows to the practiced hands of one Dr Alexander Monro, who performed a complete lecture while dissecting the murderer’s corpse.

Lecture complete, the good doctor opened the doors to all comers to gaze upon the body, and tens of thousands of Scots obliged. Burke’s skeleton remains on exhibit at University of Edinburgh medical college, and, as was the style at the time, his skin was used to make a pocket book now on display at the Surgeons’ School there.


Hello there. William Burke’s skeleton, on display in Edinburgh. (cc) image from ejbaurdo

Knox, for his part, paid not with his neck but with his reputation.

Though never charged with a crime, the doctor was run out of the the lecturing business, first by subtle and not-so-subtle actions by the University, and eventually by the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.

He was also unable to obtain any surgical post after the incident and spent his later years writing academic books and papers, none of which have lasted like the doggerel that shadowed his steps.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

A few books about Burke and Hare

Anatomy of Anatomy

Robert Knox was operating under the Murder Act of 1751, which expressly forbade the burial of an executed murderer while permitting the malefactor’s dissection.

The Act had the dual effect of allowing the state to gibbet executed criminals (both hanging in chains and dissection were considered an added ignominy, beyond the punishment of the gallows), and of supplying the budding medical community with an immediate source of fresh bodies.

As courses in anatomy became more commonplace, though, the need for cadavers increased dramatically, and the business of selling bodies for science was born.

Typically, these sales manifested themselves in body-snatching — wherein “resurrectionists” illicitly exhumed a freshly buried corpse and conveyed it to some physician’s ready scalpel.

This grim trade in turn spawned a variety of security measures. The favored dead were defended by fences, watchtowers, and human lookouts. But nothing could eliminate the industry.

In particular, those with little money or no immediate relatives were unlikely to be buried in these gated graves; that left their remains ripe for the remaindering. As well, the increase in demand made so-called anatomy murder a possibility. Burke and Hare may have been notorious for the offense,** but they did not invent it.

As detailed by George Mac Gregor in The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times: a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland, the first known case of anatomy murder occurred in 1752, also in Edinburgh.

In that case, two nurses (Jean Waldie and Helen Torrence) on death watch bartered a decent price of two shillings to sell the body of an ill child to a local surgical college. His death was delayed, and the nurses smothered him, possibly through simple carelessness.

Shortly after the Murder Act, simple economics made pikers of Torrence and Waldie. In the 17th century, England executed hundreds of prisoners a year, each a potential dissection. As Dr D.R. Johnson writes in his Introductory Anatomy:

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself. …

Agents representing surgeons would bargain with condemned prisoners not under sentence of dissection (remember this only happened for murder: hanging was in vogue for stealing a sheep or even a loaf): occasionally prisoners struck a bargain to pay expenses, to provide for a family or to buy the customary decent apparel for the hanging.

Supply was unreliable, however: riots at public hangings became common, partly because of the paltry nature of hanging events, partly from superstition. The body was often reclaimed by relatives and the unpopular anatomists stoned, defeated and out of pocket. Competition was often so fierce that a rival anatomy school carried off the body.

Dissection was unpopular and other medical uses were to be found for a recently hung body – the cure of scofula, goitre, wens, ulcers, bleeding tumours, cancers and withered limbs for example. To prevent riots and disorder the Sheriff of London took all bodies of hanged men, except those sentenced to dissection, into his own custody and handed them to the relatives for burial.

Human Trafficking

Hanoverian Britain sure did keep the gallows busy. But the pace of hangings had abated by the 19th century just as demand boomed. The math didn’t add up.

Anatomy schools (officially) dissected some 592 corpses in 1825; at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, only about 50 executions were carried out annually, and each college was guaranteed just one a year.

That meant a shortfall of close to 550 bodies. With limited supply and significant demand, surgical colleges and anatomical lecturers were willing to pay top dollar for new cadavers … and the anatomical murder business really got legs.

This was particularly true in Edinburgh, which boasted an internationally known medical college.

Burke and Hare? Just call them entrepreneurs.

And while the execution of Burke was met with applause from the community, in London, another group was already hard at work both body snatching and murdering its way into the classroom.

The London Burkers were caught in 1831 and convicted of murdering a 14-year-old whose cadaver they sold to St Bartholemew’s Hospital for 9 guineas.† The killers, Thomas Williams and John Bishop, had offed several others prior to the lad in question, making about the same price on each body.‡ In the grand, Burkean tradition of anatomical murderers, these miscreants were also dissected after their execution.§

Williams and Bishop were just two of a group of resurrectionists known collectively as the London Burkers, who claimed to have stolen upwards of 1,000 bodies from nearby cemeteries. That made the Burkers the largest known exploiters of the anatomical trade.

Over the decades after the Murder Act, though, resurrectionists were walking a dangerous line in their communities.

Reverence for the dead sparked community outrage when graves were found empty or disturbed, and it was often the anatomists themselves who felt the wrath of crowds.§§ In Glasgow in 1803, surgeons were threatened by an unruly mob and were forced to seek police protection; in 1813, an empty grave caused a similar furor. Punishments moved from fines to jail time as the surging demand made body-snatching an ever more lucrative trade.

A few books about body-snatching

By the time of the Burkers, anatomists were generally presumed to be body thieves in some capacity, a hostile sentiment graphically underscored during the Aberdeen riots of 1831. When a dog unearthed what looked like a human bone behind the Aberdeen surgical college, a mob coalesced and stormed the lecture hall.

The lecturer (“Dr Moir” — little else is known about the man) fled in terror as the hall was burned to the ground. Soldiers and police clashed with the crowd, which was thought to be over 10,000 strong. Hours later, the riot subsided, but Aberdeen was no longer a friendly place for a prospective medical talent.

And where Burke and Hare were still not quite sufficient to convince the House of Lords to take up a measure providing anatomists with alternatives for corpse acquisition, the Burkers and the Aberdeen riots apparently were.

The underground economy of resurrectionists was supplanted by the Anatomy Act of 1832, which allowed individuals to donate themselves or their unwilled kin to science for a pittance of compensation.

Anatomy murder is, of course, still the subject of horror movies. Like this one, or for the more classically inclined, this 1945 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicle adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by Burke and Hare:

* The murders included at least one husband/wife pair, a mother and, later, her (adult) daughter, and a grandmother and her young grandson. They are also known as the West Port Murders.

** Burke entered the English language as a verb meaning … well, pretty much exactly what Burke got up to.

We like the poetic explanation of this 19th century popular crime reader:

Dr. Murray, in the new English Dictionary, gives the following definition of the verb to ‘burke.’ ‘To murder in the same manner or for the same purpose as Burke did: to kill secretly by suffocation or strangulation, or for the purpose of selling the victim’s body for dissection,’ and the familiar lines are quoted from the Ingoldsby Legends: —

But when beat on his knees, that confounded De Guise
Just whipped out the “fogle” that caused all the breeze,
Pulled it tight round his neck until backwards it jerked him,
And the rest of the rascals jumped on him and burked him.

† 9 pounds, 9 shillings; by the time of the transactions, the guinea was no longer technically in use, but the term had stuck at the 21-shilling mark.

‡ Over the course of their 6 active months, the pair went from asking 8 guineas to asking 12 guineas; apparently 9 was the negotiated price with St Bartholemew’s.

§ The Burkers are the subject of the song “The Resurrectionist” by the Pet Shop Boys. (Lyrics)

§§ Edinburgh also had trouble as far back as 1742, when several surgeons’ homes were attacked by locals; a local beadle suspected of the crimes also had his home, dubbed resurrectionist hall, burned during the mob incident.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Language,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland

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

Previous Posts


Calendar

November 2018
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

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

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