Posts filed under 'Botched Executions'

1854: John Tapner, the last hanged on Guernsey

Add comment February 10th, 2016 Victor Hugo

(Thanks to guest writer Victor Hugo, who having haunted these pages in many a post kindly permits us to republish the open letter he wrote on February 11, 1854 to Home Secretary (and future Prime Minister) Lord Palmerston. This is the English version as published by London’s Daily News on February 17 of that year; here is a French version of the same. Hugo at the time was living as an exile from the French Empire in the British-controlled Channel Island of Jersey; the case concerned was the highly controversial hanging of John Tapner on the nearby island of Guernsey for the murder of an aged Frenchwoman. Nobody ever hanged again on Guernsey after this possible wrongful execution.

The footnote appears in the original. -ed.)

Sir, —

I lay before you a series of facts which have transpired in Jersey within the last few years:

Fifteen years ago Caliot, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Eight years ago Thomas Nicolle, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned. Three years ago, in 1851, Jacques Fouquet, a murderer, was condemned to death, and pardoned.* In each of these cases the penalty of death was commuted for transportation.

In each case, to obtain a commutation of the sentence, a petition signed by the inhabitants of the island was sufficient.

In 1851 transportation was thought a sufficient punishment for Edward Carlton, who murdered his wife under circumstances of the most horrible description.

All this has taken place within fifteen years in the island from which I now address you.

Let us shift the scene from Jersey to Guernsey.

Tapner, a murderer, an incendiary, and a robber, is condemned to death.

At present, and the facts above stated prove the truth of the assertion, the penalty of death is virtually abolished in the opinion of every sane, well thinking man.

No sooner is Tapner condemned than a cry is heard, petitions are multiplied; one, energetically establishing itself on the principle of the inviolability of human life, was signed by 600 of the most enlightened of the inhabitants of the island.

And it is worthy of notice that not one minister of any Christian sect has deigned to affix his signature to either of these petitions. These men are probably ignorant that the cross is a gallows. — The people cried: “Mercy!” The priest cried: “Death!” — Let us pity the priest and resume our subject.

These petitions have been forwarded to you — a repsite has been granted. In similar cases a respite was equal to a commutation of the sentence — the island draws breath — the gallows is not to be erected — cruel error! the gallows is erected — Tapner is hung! and this after mature consideration.

Why?

Why should Guernsey be refused that which has been so often granted to Jersey?

Why deal to one concession and to the other affront? — Why should pardon be sent here and the executioner there?

Why this difference where all things else are equal? — What use was the respite but to aggravate the torture? — Was some mystery involved? To what purpose has been consideration?

Things are whispered, sir, to which I dare not listen. No! it cannot be true. What! a voice, and that of the most obscure, if it be the voice of an exile, cannot ask pardon from an insignificant corner of Europe for a man about to die without being heard by M. Bonaparte, without M. Bonaparte’s interference. What, M. Bonaparte, who has the guillotine of Bellay, the guillotine of Draguignan and the guillotine of Montpellier, not satisfied with all these! Has he still an appetite left for a gallows in Guernsey.

What — in such a case could you have refused justice to the proscribed for fear of giving umbrage to the proscriber. If so, the man was hung to accommodate, and the gallows erected as an act of courtesy, and could you have done all this to strengthen your alliance. No, no; I do not, I cannot believe it. I cannot even admit the idea, although I shudder at it.

Before the great and generous English nation can your Queen have the right of pardon, and M. Bonaparte that of a veto. At the same time that there is an omnipotent in heaven, can there be an omnipotent on earth? No.

I merely say that it was not possible for the French journals to speak of Tapner. I state the fact, but I draw no conclusion from it. However this may be, you have determined to use the terms of the despatch, that justice should take its course, and all is over.

However this may be, Tapner, after having been three times respited, and had his case three times under consideration, was hung yesterday, the 10th of February, and if there be any truth in the conjectures, which for myself I utterly reject, I present you, sir, with the bulletin of the day. you may, if such be the case, transmit it to the Tuileries. These details cannot be offensive to the Empire of the 2nd of December. The Eagle will hover with delight over the field of this victory! He is a gallows Eagle!

A garden joined the prison. In this garden the scaffold was erected. A breach was made in the wall for the prisoner to pass through. At 8 o’clock in the morning the neighbouring streets were crowded with spectators, of whom 200 of the privileged were admitted into the garden. The man appeared in the breach. He walked erect and with a firm step; he was pale, the red circle caused by anxious wakefulness surrounded his eyes.

The month just passed had added twenty years to his age — a man thirty years of age appeared fifty.

“A cotton night-cap was drawn over his head and turned up in front (says an eye-witness); he was dressed in a brown coat, which he wore during the trial, and an old pair of slippers.”

He walked partly round the garden, in a walk gravelled expressly for the occasion. The javelin men, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the Queen’s solicitor surrounded him. His hands were tied loosely, as we shall presently see.

According to English custom, while the hands were crossed upon the breast, a cord bound the elbows behind the back.

Behind him, the chaplains, who had refused to sign the petition for mercy, followed weeping.

The gravel walk led to the ladder — the cord was swinging — Tapner ascended the ladder — the executioner trembled: inferior executioners are at times susceptible of pity. Tapner placed himself under the noose, and pressed it over his head, and his hands not being firmly tied, he desired the executioner, who seemed quite confused, to arrange the rope. Then, “as if he had had a presentiment of what was to follow,” says the same eye-witness, “he said, ‘Tie my hands tighter.’ ‘That is unnecessary,’ replied the executioner.” Tapner standing thus with the rope round his neck, and his feet on the trap, the executioner drew the night-cap over his eyes, and nothing more could be seen of that pale face but the mouth moving as in prayer.

After some moments, the man destined to this high office pressed a spring — the drop fell, and the body fell abruptly through — the cord tightened, the body turned, and the man was considered dead.

“It was thought (says the eye-witness) that Tapner was killed at once by the rupture of the spinal marrow, he having fallen 4 feet,” but the witness further adds, “the relief of our oppressed hearts did not last two minutes.” Suddenly the man not yet a corpse, but already a spectre, moved.

The legs were thrown convulsively about, as if seeking some stay in the empty space; what could be discovered of the face was horribly disfigured; and the hands, which had become loose, were clasped and relaxed, as if to implore assistance. The cord around the elbows had snapped in the fall. Amidst these convulsions the rope began to swing, the elbows of the poor wretch came in contact with the edge of the trap, he clung to it with his hands, rested his right knee upon it, raised his body, and seemed to lean towards the crowd. Again he fell; and twice, says the eye witness, was the same scene repeated. He then raised his cap, and the crowd gained a sight of his face. This, it seemed, was too much. It was necessary to close the scene. The executioner reascended the scaffold, and caused the sufferer (I still quote the eyewitness) to let go his hold. The executioner and the victim struggled for a moment; the executioner triumphed. Then this wretch, himself like one condemned, threw himself into the aperture where Tapner was hanging, straightened his knees, and hung to his feet. The rope oscillated for a moment, bearing the victim and the executioner, the crime and the law. At last the executioner himself relaxed his hold; all was over; the man was dead.


Also a prolific drawer, Victor Hugo produced this Ecce in 1854, and several other depictions of the gallows in the ensuing years — possibly inspired by his horror at Tapner’s fate. Ecce is also known as John Brown, although that American slavery abolitionist was not executed until 1859.

You see, sir, how things were managed; the effect was completed; for the town, being built as an amphitheatre, everything was seen from the windows, all eyes were fixed on the garden. If it were the object to excite a feeling of horror, it was done: the crowd cried “Shame, shame,” and several females fainted.

During this time, Fouquet, who had been pardoned in 1851, is repeating. The executioner has converted Tapner into a corpse; Mercy, Fouquet into a man!

Between the time when Tapner fell into the trap, and that in which the executioner, no longer perceiving any motion, let go his feet, 12 minutes elapsed. Twelve minutes! Let that time be calculated, if any one knows by what clock to number the moments of suffering. Such, sir, was the mode of Tapner’s death.

The theory of example is satisfied; the philosopher alone mourns, and asks himself if this be what is called allowing justice to take its course? We must believe the philosopher to be wrong. The punishment has been frightful, but the crime was hideous. Must not society be defended? What will become of us if, &c. &c. The audacity of criminals would meet with no restraint. There would be nothing but atrocities and murders. A check is absolutely necessary. At least, it seems your opinion, Sir, that Tapners should be hung unless they be emperors. Let the will of statesmen be done!

Theorists, dreamers, those visionary spirits who have formed some notion of good and evil, cannot sound, without difficulty, certain depths of the problem of destiny.

Had Tapner, instead of killing one woman, destroyed 300, adding to the heap some hundreds of old men and children — had he instead of breaking a door, violated an oath — had he, instead of purloining a few shillings, stolen 25 millions — had he, instead of burning the house Saujon, overawed Paris by force of arms, he would have an ambassador at London.

It might, however, be as well to define a little more precisely the point at which Tapner ceases to be a robber, and Schinderhannes commences politician. Sir, this is horrible! We are members, you and I, of the infinitely small. I am only a refugee, you are only a minister — I am ashes, you are dust — Atom may surely speak freely to atom — where each is nothing, truth may be spoken. Well then, be assured, whatever may be the actual success of your policy, however glorious the alliance of M. Bonaparte, however honourable it may be for you to act in strict union with him, however far famed and magnificently may be your common triumph in Turkish affairs, this rope, which was fastened round a human sack, the trap which opened under his feet, the hope that, in falling, he would break his spine, the face become livid beneath the deep shadow of the gallows, the bloodshot eyes bursting from their sockets, the tongue lolling from the throat, that groan of anguish only stifled by the knot, the terrified soul which still clings to its tenement, the convulsed knees which seek some support, those bound hands mutely clasped and asking help — and that other man, that man of darkness, who throws himself upon these last struggles, who clings to the knees of the dying wretch, and himself hangs upon the hanging — Sir, these things are frightful!


Victor Hugo, The Hanged Man, c. 1855-1860.

And if haply the conjectures which I disavow be true, if the man who hung to the feet of Tapner were indeed M. Bonaparte, it would be monstrous. But, I repeat, I do not believe this. You have yielded to no influence; you simply said — let justice take its course; you gave this order, as you would have done any other, the prolonged discussions concerning capital punishment do not interest you. To hang a man, and to drink a glass of water are the same things in your estimation — you did not comprehend the importance of the act; it was the oversight of a statesman, nothing more. Sir, keep your blinders for earth, and do not offer them to eternity! Do not trifle with such deep interests, mix nothing of your own with them; it would be impudent. I can see more deeply into those interests than you — Beware! Exul sicul mortuus. I speak as from the tomb.

Bah! what matters it? A man is hung; and what more? a coil of rope to be wound up; some timber work to be taken to pieces a corpse to be buried. Certainly these are great matters! We will fire the cannon, a little smoke in the East, and all will be over. A microscope will be required to detect Guernsey and Tapner. Gentlemen, this rope, this beam, this corpse, this dreadful though invisible gallows, this suffering, carry us into immensity. They involve the social question, which is more important than the political; they do more — they carry us beyond earth. That, which is of little consequence, is your cannon, your politics, and your smoke. The assassin who to-morrow becomes the victim, as a soul which takes its flight holding the end of the gallows-rope — it is this which is frightful. Statesmen, who between two protocols, two dinners, and two smiles, carelessly press with white-gloved hand the spring of the gibbet, and the trap falls under the feet of the victim. Know you what you do? The infinite appears; the unfathomable and the unknown; the mighty shade which rises suddenly and terribly beneath your littleness.

Proceed! Let us observe the men of the old world at their work. Since the past still struggles let us examine it. Let us observe its successive phases.

At Tunis it is impaling; with the Czar the knout; with the Pope it is the garrot; in France the guillotine; in England the gallows; in Asia and America the slave market. All this will be swept away. We, the anarchists, the demagogues, the blood-drinkers, tell you, the protectors and saviours of the world, that human liberty is to be respected, human intelligence is holy, human life is sacred, and the human soul divine. Now go on hanging! But beware! The future opens. You think that living which is dead, and that dead which is living. The ancient form of society, but it is dead. You are deceived. You have stretched out your hand to the spectre of darkness, and chosen her for your bride. You turn your back upon life: it will soon arise behind you. When we pronounce the words Progress, Revolution, Liberty, Humanity, you smile, unhappy man, and point to the darkness in which we both are involved. Do you indeed know what that night is? Learn the truth; ere long the ideas will burst forth in all their strength and glory. Democracy yesterday took the name of France; to-morrow it will take that of Europe. The eclipse does but conceal the increasing magnitude of the star.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

VICTOR HUGO.
Marine-terrace, Feb. 11

* We read in the Jersey newspapers, of January 7, 1851:

James Fouquet — We are informed that James Fouquet, condemned to death by our Royal Court, for the murder of Derbyshire, and whose punishment was commuted by her Majesty into transportation for life, was removed, about six months ago, from the prison at Milbank, where he had hitherto remained, to Dartmoor. He is nearly cured of the wound in his neck, and his conduct has been such, while at Millbank, that the governor of that prison thinks it extremely possible, there will be a further commutation of his sentence into banishment from the English territories.

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2015: Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, filmed

Add comment January 12th, 2016 Headsman

Last year on this date, Saudi Arabia’s execution wave consumed a Burmese woman named Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim.

Condemned for the murder and sexual abuse of her seven-year-old stepdaughter, Basim went to her public beheading protesting her innocence and resisting in whatever way she could — which we know, because a cell phone recording of the execution attained worldwide dissemination. In it, the black-shrouded condemned shrieks over and over, “I did not kill! This is unjust!” She denounces her executioners, invokes the Shahada … until her throat is horrifically emptied of its last protest by the blade.

Warning: This is the on-camera death of a human being from just a few meters’ distance, obtained via Liveleak. It’s awful.

Thanks to the outrage this video spawned, a “human rights organization” underwritten by the Saudi government demanded the arrest of the person who recorded the video … which did indeed occur.

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1957: Jack Gilbert Graham, terror of the skies

Add comment January 11th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Gilbert Graham was gassed* on this date in 1957 in Colorado for a cold-blooded mass murder in the skies.

Just a petty crook until his turn towards cinematic infamy, Graham fell badly in debt and looked to the friendly skies to recover his financial footing.**

When his mother, Daisie King, flew to Alaska to visit family on November 1, 1955, Graham purchased a $37,500 life insurance policy on her at the airport,† knowing that 25 sticks of dynamite had been packed into her luggage. When Graham’s bomb exploded minutes after departure, mom went down in the wreckage … and 43 other people besides. Nobody survived. Chillingly, it appeared to be a crime copied from a notorious 1949 Canadian airline bombing that sent two people to the gallows over an affair of the heart.

These cardinal sins turned literally deadly were bad enough when folks in the way got quietly poisoned off, but one could hardly fail to be alarmed at the prospect of an actual trend developing out of random private grievances turning into terror in the skies with bystanders killed by the (at least) dozens.

Once Colorado authorities zeroed in on Graham, they sought a quick trial and maximum sentence for deterrent effect. Graham halfheartedly retracted his confession but otherwise did little to fight the result; if anything, his callous indifference to the fates of a whole planeload of people stood him in a very poor light.

“As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it,” he told a Time magazine reporter. “Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”

He was easy to find, and even easier to hate.

The bombing happened on the first of November in 1955. Twelve days on, he had confessed to the FBI.‡ By May of the following year, Graham was convicted in a sensational trial — one of the first ever televised — and his appeals wrapped up a mere eight months after that.


Graham is also the reason Lenny Bruce is on the no-fly list.

* Graham died hard, screaming and thrashing against the straps in the gas chamber. The warden assured observers (accurately) that this sort of thing, horrible as it was to behold, was not uncommon.

** In Mainliner Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629, Andrew Field argues that personal resentment towards his mother drove Graham more than did pecuniary motives.

† Air travel was regarded as a much more perilous venture at this time, and insurance was commonly sold at airports.

‡ Though the feds helped the investigation, there were at that time no applicable federal statutes under which to charge Graham — so the judicial proceedings were strictly Colorado’s affair. Formally, he was charged with only one count of murder: that of his mother. It was charge enough for the task at hand.

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1950: Norman Goldthorpe, knot botch

Add comment November 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.

Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.

Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.

Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.

Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”

The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”

A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.

“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”

Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.

Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.

Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”

Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”

After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.

In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.

Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”

It was the last hanging Harry Kirk ever worked.

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1765: Patrick Ogilvie, but not Katharine Nairn

Add comment November 13th, 2015 Headsman

“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.

It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.

Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”

Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.

At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.

In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.

It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.

The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness

So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —

Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.

You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.

Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”

He also died alone.

His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.

She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.

“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.

“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”

* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.

** Hanoverian gaols had a major security hole where cross-dressing escapees were concerned.

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1765: Alexander Provan, half-handed

Add comment November 7th, 2015 Headsman

A murderer named Alexander Provan was put to death on this date in 1765, the very rare* instance of a Scottish execution enhanced with mutilation.

Provan, who was uncovered as his wife’s murderer when he carelessly poured out her blood from a bottle thinking he was serving his friends an evening tipple, was doomed to have the right hand that authored the horrid deed struck off prior to hanging at Paisley.

But the unusual sentence implied an unpracticed executioner. Visibly nervous, the man missed his aim and instead of severing the evil limb at the wrist, he split Provan right through the palm.

At this the wretched prisoner began shrieking for the halter already fastened around his neck — “the tow, the tow, the tow!” The horrified executioner obliged with all speed, dragging the wailing uxoricide off his feet and past his mortal troubles.

* Unique?

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1854: William Lipsey and James Logan, in gold rush Coloma

Add comment November 3rd, 2015 Headsman

The gold rush boom town of Coloma, California hosted its first (legal) hanging on this date in 1854.

Coloma was the very site of Sutter’s Mill, where the accidental discovery of gold flakes launched California’s gold rush.

The ensuing swell of human avarice arriving from every corner of the globe all but overwhelmed the frontier territory’s capacity; nearby San Francisco, “transformed … into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties,” was so disordered that its laws were enforced extrajudicially by a self-appointed Vigilance Committee.

Coloma itself, the literal first mining town of the gold rush, boomed as the county seat of the new-christened El Dorado County. According to Alton Pryor, Coloma had 300 buildings and a hotel under construction by the summer of 1848, six months after the gold strike. (Today, Coloma is a near ghost town.) And like everywhere else, it had a job to manage the mad new world of desperate fortune-hunters ready to murder one another for the dust in their pockets. Coloma has the distinction of giving birth to California’s first sheriff’s department, in 1852.

It’s almost surprising in such an environment that the original gold rush hotbed didn’t have an execution until 1854 — but Coloma made up for lost time* on November 3, 1854, by hanging two men, twice over.

The milestone perpetrators were classic frontier rascals, straight from a spaghetti Western rogues’ gallery. William Lipsey, a 25-year-old gambler, had murdered a fellow cardsharp in a drunken brawl over a game. James Logan, a 47-year-old miner “silvered o’er with age”, was condemned for killing a fellow miner in a claim dispute — though all the way to the gallows, Logan insisted to the last, before the 6,000 or so souls assembled to watch him die, that he had killed only in self-defense, remarking that

[h]e stood before them a condemned man, the victim of false testimony. It was true that he had taken the life of a fellow creature, but he had committed the deed in self-defence. He went to the claim where the tragedy took place, not as has been said to kill Fennel, but because the claim was his own, and he went to get possession of it. His own rash threats had brought him to the scaffold. In answer to propositions to settle the difficulty by law or arbitration, he had rashly replied that there was a shorter and better way — but he did not mean it. He went to the claim to get possession of it, but did not snap or present his pistol — he merely showed it. It was merely a single-barreled pistol. Fennel went and got a revolver, and came back and presented it at him, cocked. Fennel was advancing upon him with a cocked revolver when he presented his singlebarreled pistol. Any other testimony than this was false. He only snapped his pistol a moment before Fennel did his. The man who swore that he snapped his first swore a lie. They both snapped together. He had warned Fennel not to advance. He got behind Swift, and if he (Swift) had stood his ground, nobody would have been killed, But Swift flinched, and stepped aside. He then had to be killed himself, kill Fennel, or run away. He fired, and Fennel fell. He repeated that it was false that he snapped his pistol first; it was that snap that had brought him to the gallows, and the testimony about it was false.

In view of the halter (to which he pointed his finger) and in presence of that God before whom he was so shortly to appear, he was now speaking the truth. He would never have been hung if he had not had a principle of courage in his composition that prevented him from running away.

Lipsey, who was unquestionably guilty, did not have the older man’s composure and had to be half-dragged to the scaffold where he was so unmanned that he could not muster any last remark — though he was heard to murmur before dropped, “I don’t think I’m a murderer at heart.”

As the Coloma sheriff had no experience with executions, both men fell through their nooses and landed on the ground still alive. Still cool under pressure, Logan raised his hood to look around, got up, and walked back up to the gallows platform unassisted — but as the lawmen adjusted the hemp for the do-over, he recollected the letter of the death warrant and asked to see a watch.

“Ah, you have twenty minutes yet,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “If it was two o’clock I would demand my liberty under the law.”

* Coloma had another double hanging in 1855: outlaw Mickey Free hanged alongside Kentucky-born schoolmaster Jerry Crane, who murdered a student with whom he had become infatuated.

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1862: Ten Confederate hostages in the Palmyra Massacre

Add comment October 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Union Gen. John McNeil had ten Confederate soldiers hanged in what history has recorded as the Palmyra Massacre.

The Slave Power’s northern salient, Missouri was surrounded to the east, north, and west by free soil — which made it an antebellum flashpoint since the days of the Missouri Compromise.*

In the 1850s, the Missouri conflict poured into neighboring Kansas as the enemy sides of the slavery question fought to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as slave state or free, often literally pouring over the border from (or back over the border into) Missouri. The Missouri borderlands of Bleeding Kansas was where the radical abolitionist martyr John Brown made his name, commanding free state militia in a guerrilla war that presaged the coming clash of North and South.

By the time we lay our scene in 1862, John Brown has exited courtesy of Virginia’s gallows, and the dragon’s teeth sown in Missouri and Kansas and everywhere else had sprung to horrible life. Missouri’s own civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor throughout the state in a bushwhacking conflict that extended locally for many years after Appomattox.**

The nastiness of the years to come is aptly suggested by this date’s events.

Like neighboring Kentucky, Missouri was a border state with a Union government, albeit one contested by a rival Confederate government. From the standpoint of the North, all Confederate activity there was behind its lines and the perpetrators therefore potentially subject to treatment (up to and including execution) as spies, saboteurs, and the like.†

Joseph Chrisman Porter, a Confederate officer, was one such possible client of this here site, tapped as he was for recruiting and raiding operations in northeast Missouri. His Union adversary Gen. John McNeil saw Porter as basically a terrorist. In August of 1862, Porter’s aide Frisby McCullough fell into McNeil’s hands: the Union general had McCullough shot.

On September 12, Porter raided the town of Palmyra, where McNeil held a number of Confederate prisoners. In the course of the raid, he kidnapped Andrew Allsman, a 60-year-old Palmyra resident. “It was said of him that he was able to inform the military authorities of certain movements of the enemy, and that he gave definitive information as to the homes and whereabouts of many men of Confederate leanings,” in the words of this pro-Confederate 1902 pamphlet on the incident. “Naturally, this placed him in disfavor with the Southern sympathizers and those who were fighting in that cause.”

What happened next — though it was not known to the Union at the time — was that Allsman was shot. The pamphlet just cited attempts to obfuscate this event into the fog of war and not really Porter’s fault. The bare fact is that his raiders had gone out of their way to seize an aged non-combatant and then summarily executed him.

Not knowing Allsman’s fate, McNeil responded with an ultimatum to his opposite number.

Palmyra, Mo., Oct. 8, 1862.

To Joseph C. Porter.

Sir: — Andrew Allsman, an aged citizen of Palmyra and a non-combatant, having been carried away from his home by a band of persons unlawfully arraigned against the peace and good order of the State of Missouri, and which band was under your control, this is to notify you that, unless Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date, ten men, who have belonged to your band, and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the government of the United States, and who are now in custody, will be shot as a meet reward for their crimes, amongst which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman of his liberty, and if not returned, of presumptively aiding in his murder. Your prompt attention to this will save much suffering.

Yours, etc.,

W.R. Strachan
Provost Marshal General Northeast District of Missouri
By order of Brigadier General commanding McNeil’s column

The Confederates, of course, could not produce Allsman.

So, on the evening of Oct. 17, five rebel prisoners in the Palmyra stockade plus five more held in Hannibal were informed that they would be shot the next afternoon, in ruthless enforcement of the threat.

The men who died this date in 1862 by a volley of musketry at the Palmyra fairgrounds were:

  • Captain Thomas Sidenor
  • William T. Baker
  • Thomas Humston
  • Morgan Bixler
  • John McPheeters
  • Hiram Smith
  • Herbert Hudson
  • John Wade
  • Marion Lair
  • Eleazer Lake

Their names adorn the base of a monument erected in Palmyra in 1907 commemorating the so-called “Palmyra Massacre”. The state of Missouri as a digital archive of original documents relating to the affair available here.

* Missouri was where the slave Dred Scott lived; his owner taking him to the neighboring free state of Illinois and thence points north occasioned the notorious Supreme Court case that bears his name.

** Frank and Jesse James were Confederate partisans for William Quantrill in the Missouri war; they segued directly into their more celebrated career in outlawry right after the war ended — robbing banks whilst settling scores with pro-Union men for the rest of the 1860s, before branching out to other points on the frontier.

† The Union might obviously have chosen to treat the entire Confederacy as a treasonable enterprise rather than a legitimate enemy belligerent. As a historical matter, it did not take this perspective.

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1899: Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, horribly

Add comment August 18th, 2015 Headsman

From the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Times, Aug. 18, 1899:

ROCKVILLE, Md., Aug. 18 — Armstead Taylor and John Alfred Brown, negroes, were hanged here this morning for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenstein at Slidelle in March last.

The drop fell at 10:15[?]. The hanging was a horrible botch. the knot did not slip but the drop was long enough. The men writhed, groaned and uttered inarticualate [sic] sounds for nearly ten minutes.

The murders for which they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged were committed at Slidelle, a little station two miles north of Boyds, Md. on March 13 last.

Louis Rosenstein, the postmaster of the hamlet[,] lived with his aged parents in the rear of the post office. They were said to have plenty of money. Early one morning they were attacked and the man’s skull was crushed and the woman’s head pounded with some blunt instrument.

The store was ransacked and a little over $3,000, a pair of shoes and several articles were taken.

Louis Rosenstein died the day after of his injuries and Mrs. Rosenstein lingered until May when she succumbed in a hospital at Baltimore.

Taylor went to Washington and soon attracted attention by spending money in a lavish manner in Georgetown. Suspicious neighbors gave the police the information that led to his capture.

Before Taylor was arrested, however, Sergeant Fritz Bassau of the Washington police force gave up his life. Taylor shot him down as he was climbing the stairs to arrest him, where he was concealed in the house at Georgetown. He also shot Officer Gowon in the hand.

Taylor was taken back to Montgomery county, but did not stand trial for injuring the policemen. His trial was begun at Frederick on July [?] and Brown’s a week later. Both were convicted and sentenced to be hanged August 18.

Strong efforts were made to have Brown respited, it being believed by many that he was only an accessory after the fact.

The men mounted the scaffold at 10:15. They were both calm and exhibited nerve. As they were placed on the door the sheriff asked if they had anything to say. Taylor made a rambling statement in an almost inaudible voice. He appeared weak and swayed upon his feet. He said:

Gentlemen, I done both the killings myself. My Uncle Brown is not guilty. I am the guilty man, but I expect to go to heaven.

Brown refused to make any statement beyond that he had forgiven his enemies and had found salvation.

The deputies then adjusted the rope, before placing the black caps on their heads. Both men smiled and Brown said good-bye to some friends in the crowd who spoke to him.

Sheriff Thompson tok [sic] a board about six feet in length, walked over to the side of the scaffold, reached down and inserted the end of a plank in the wire ring and sprung the trap.

The bodies fell through simultaneously and began to writhe and sway in a horrible manner. Taylor seemed to be conscious and appeared to be trying to speak.

The priests pronounced it the most horrible execution they had ever seen.

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1883: James Burton, William Marwood’s last

Add comment August 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.

The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.

James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,

my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)

Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.

Instead, William Marwood ended up with the task.

The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.

Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.

As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.

This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.

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