Posts filed under 'Botched Executions'

1326: Edmund FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel

Add comment November 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1326, Edmund FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel was beheaded at Hereford for his support of King Edward II, during the rebellion of Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.

Arundel’s relationship with doomed king had not always been so fatally chummy. That he turned out to be one of the few great nobles to back Edward against his wife’s adulterous coup d’etat would probably have surprised his own younger self — for 15 years before his execution he had joined the Lords Ordainers in opposition to Edward and hated royal favorite Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Arundel was one of the men who eventually condemned Gaveston to execution. Two years after that, he passed on aiding Edward’s Scottish campaign and the upshot of that was the great defeat of Banockburn.

But these two foes were able to see their way to an arrangement as the 1310s unfolded, and Arundel married his son — the boy who would succeed as the next Earl of Arundel when our man got his head cut off* — to the daughter of the next royal favorite, Hugh Despenser.

This dynastic alliance with the man swiftly becoming the most powerful lord in England put Arundel firmly on Team Edward, with very lucrative results. When other nobles who hated the new favorite rebelled in the early 1320s, Arundel helped to put that disturbance down, and pocketed portions of the traitors’ forfeited estates for his trouble — including that of the attainted Mortimer himself.

These enemies were permanent.

Mortimer managed to escape the Tower of London and fled into exile, eventually taking up with the disaffected Queen Isabella, who was a French princess herself. When Mortimer and Isabella mounted an invasion in 1326, Arundell and his brother-in-law Surrey were the only earls to keep the king’s side. (Temporarily: Surrey made peace with the new regime when it carried the day.)

Captured by John Charleton, a Welsh landowner who’d been personally piqued by Arundel’s growing acquisitions in that region, he was hauled before Queen Isabella and put to summary execution. But not too summary: there’s a report by a chronicler that the “worthless wretch” wielding the blade required no fewer than 22 hacks to part head from shoulders.

Kathryn Warner’s excellent and venerable Edward II blog has a very thorough post on the Earl of Arundell as well as a separate one on John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever, two obscure courtiers who shared the same fate on the same occasion.

(Warner has also just recently — in October of 2014 — published her book about Edward II.)

* Technically Richard FitzAlan only became Earl of Arundel in 1331, when Edward III, having deposed the regime of his mother and Mortimer, re-granted the title.

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1883: Frederick Mann

Add comment October 12th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1883, Frederick Mann was hanged for murdering four members of his master’s family.

Frederick was an immigrant from London and worked as a live-­in farmhand and manservant to the Cooke family in Little Rideau, Ontario. He was only seventeen years old.

Frederick had been living with the Cookes for only a few months at the time of the murders. He seemed to get on fine with Mr. and Mrs. Cooke and their five children, although he sometimes mistreated their livestock. Then, on January 2, 1883, for no apparent reason, he went berserk.

That morning Frederick followed one of the Cooke family’s adult daughters, Emma, into the granary and tried to rape her. When she screamed for help, he strangled her with a rope. Emma’s cries were heard by her mother, who went running to her aid, but Frederick strangled her too.

Following this he went into the barn and attacked his master Ruggles W. Cooke with an ax, chopping his head to pieces. Frederick then went into the farmhouse and attacked sons George and Willie Cooke, who were both still asleep. He killed Willie with a blow to the head but was only able to wound George on the thigh before the boy got away from him. George and his two sisters wrestled the ax away from Frederick, who then fled the farmhouse. (There are reports that George later died of his leg injury.)

He was arrested the next day, just across the Ottawa River in Quebec.

During subsequent investigation it came out that, when he had been working for a family in Montreal, he’d tried to poison them. Doctors who subsequently examined the defendant determined he had “keen intelligence … but low moral nature.” The press reported Frederick had committed the murders “in revenge for a fancied insult.”

Although his attorney prepared for an insanity defense, in the end there was no trial: Frederick pleaded guilty to all four murders on September 17 when he appeared in court. His lawyer pleaded for leniency, but the judge passed the sentence of death.

Young Frederick’s execution was gruesome, as recorded in Jeffrey Pfeifer and Ken Leyton­-Brown’s book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The identity of the hangman was unknown but he was clearly inexperienced and the Sheriff had to show him how to properly pinion the prisoner’s legs. The hangman’s level of inexperience was made even clearer when he pulled the lever, sending Mann through the trap. The drop had been miscalculated and Mann hung less than 1?4 of an inch from the ground. To make matters worse, the noose had been placed incorrectly around the condemned man’s neck and the knot slid under his chin. The spectators were left to watch in horror for almost ten minutes as Mann slowly suffocated, his toes almost touching the ground. After death had been declared Mann was buried in the yard of the gaol, but not before his brain had been removed and sent to Montreal to be examined.

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1922: Benny Swim, “dead as a door-nail” (or not)

Add comment October 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Benny Swim suffered a double hanging for a double murder.

Benny Swim(m) grew up on a squalid backwoods farm in the New Brunswick “badlands” where violence and moonshine were as ubiquitous as poverty: “the poorest human beings I have ever met in a civilized country,” in the words of an English observer who chanced to meet the story’s principals on a hunting trip before they made the crime headlines.

According to a somewhat lurid 1981 Toronto Star profile, Benny was “a moody, difficult boy who didn’t get along at home” and left school at age 12 after attacking a crowd of bullying schoolmates with a knife.

His cruel life’s best comfort was an incestuous passion for his cousin Olive Swim(m).

Olive did not leave her cousin’s lust unrequited — Olive’s father said the two lived as de facto man and wife for a year and a half — but neither was she faithful to the jealous Benny. Our visiting hunting party discovered that firsthand when one of its number took Olive out for a drive and parked with her. Before they could get to steaming up the windshield, a gunshot ripped through it, fortuitously harming neither. “Benny, Benny, don’t shoot again!” Olive cried as she leapt out of the adulterous conveyance.

In February-March of 1922, 17-year-old Olive became so infatuated with a former soldier that she ran off and married him, moving away and refusing to receive her former paramour. Benny met in his customary way the turn of his fortunes: he got himself a revolver and went to see the newlyweds making no attempt to disguise his intentions.

Harvey Trenholm he surprised chopping woods in the snow and shot him dead in the face. A screaming Olive he met at the door of her new home as she attempted to flee, and shot her in the chest, and then, as she staggered away from her assailant, in the back. “It’s awful what a woman can bring a man to do,” the killer would later remark.

The only person on the scene whom he couldn’t manage to kill was himself. His suicide shot failed to penetrate his skull and lodged under the skin. The sheriff found him, following the trail of bloody snow from the crime scene, recuperating at a neighboring farm. “Sheriff, this is awful,” Swim said to him. “I suppose I will hang for it.”

And how.

With the regular hangmen unavailable, they hired a guy named Doyle from Montreal to conduct the execution at the Carleton County Jail in Woodstock.

Doyle, who claimed to have several hangings on his resume, conducted Benny to the scaffold and, at 5:06 a.m., dropped him as the the prisoner was in the midst of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. One eight-foot fall later, and it was another zipless kill for the cocksure Doyle. “Splendid job ain’t it?” Doyle boasted. “The man is as dead as a door-nail.”

What Doyle lacked in professional decorum, he also lacked in professional competence.

Though Swim was unconscious, the fall had not broken his neck — and the hangmen then proceeded to blithely cut the “dead” man down without leaving him to dangle long enough to ensure death. When the body was laid out back in its cell as prison staff set about attending to the posthumous necessaries, the doctor designated to certify death discovered a pulse. And breathing. He soon enough, coughing and choking sounds. The pulse was growing stronger — the doctor believed he could bring Benny back around.

A hushed argument then followed in the little cell over the essence of the judicial sentence “hanged by the neck until dead.”* The sheriff, possibly considering the enormously embarrassing fallout no less than the letter of the law, carried the day. Two ministers, who had been singing hymns with Benny Swim minutes beforehand, helped the assistant hangman, a fellow named Gill, carry the still-insensible man back to the gallows and propped him up for a second noosing. (Doyle, whose indecorous remarks had been overheard by the general public peeping at the hanging over the jailyard walls,** was spirited away within the jail for fear that he might stand to join the ranks of lynched executioners. He remained in protective custody for much of the day, and was at last secretly escorted back to a train station and sent home to Montreal.)

Public fury at the affair, and the scandalous word-of-mouth reports of hangman Doyle’s behavior, conspired to make the late double murderer into an object of pity. Benny’s funeral, noted The Press (Oct. 17, 1922), was “very largely attended. There were 150 teams in the procession. The large number of people attending … testified to the disgust of the community against hanging, a relic of the dark ages.”

* “It is clear that if, upon judgment to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, the criminal be not thoroughly killed, but revives, the sheriff must hang him again. For the former hanging was no execution of the sentence.” -Blackstone

** Woodstock’s jail was hardly constructed with steady gallows-traffic in mind. “The yard is small, bordering on the street and there is nothing to obstruct the view of the public from what takes place therein,” ran one report at the time. “The Swim hanging would have been hardly more public if the scaffold had been erected on the street.”

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1944: A Dutch Kapo named Raphaelson

1 comment September 27th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.

Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”

Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.

Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.

He met his death through sheer bad luck.

By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,

Book CoverThis Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.

While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.

And then … the SS let him go.

He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.

Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.

The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.

It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”

“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:

After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.

We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!

A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.

After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”

Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.

After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.

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1914: Seven retreating Frenchmen, with surprising results

Add comment September 7th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, during the Battle of the Marne, seven French soldiers were shot without trial for retreating. Most of the resources about this Gallic tragedy are in French, and so are most of the links in today’s post.

The French book Fusille Vivant traces the life of Francois Waterlot, a prolific correspondent who wrote some 250 letters after surviving this date’s execution, before finally dying at the front the following year.

All were enlistees of France’s 327th Infantry Regiment. On the night of September 6, German shelling panicked their sister 270th Regiment into a disorderly retreat away from the front lines. That rout ran right into the 327th, behind them, and panicked that regiment too.

Further in the army’s rear, by the hubbub awoke from his farmhouse bivouac division commander Gen. Rene Boutegourd. Boutegard had a simple solution, and ordered seven of the soldiers caught away from their posts to be executed the next morning by way of example. While the war’s later years would feature notoriously unfair courts-martial with predetermined sentences, Gen. Boutegourd didn’t even see the need to pay that much tribute to procedural regularity in this case.

The Battle of the Marne was still ongoing, and the situation in the field, pre-trench warfare, was fluid. Shoot them out of hand and be done with it! Then, the rest of the division will understand the consequences of unauthorized retreat.

Barbieux, Caffiaux, Clement, Delsarte, Dufour, Hubert, and Watrelot were stupefied to learn that they suddenly had mere hours left to live.

According to a postwar newspaper article — printed in 1922, when the bizarre case came to public attention and led to a posthumous pardon — they immediately began pleading for their lives. “Put us in the first wave of the next attack, but I beg you not to subject us to French balls,” Delsarte cried.

In those opening weeks of what was supposed to be a short war, with men’s minds still half at home in the pleasurable prewar idyll, the cruel frequency of the execution pour l’exemple had not yet set its stamp on things. The first such instance had occurred only the week before.

Maybe the men detailed to kill the “deserters” were equally stunned: it is hard to put down the results of the shootings merely to the uncertainties of technology or the hardiness of flesh and bone.

Palmyr Clement survived the fusillade and only died two agonizing days later from his firing squad injuries. This is a bizarre outcome even for those occasional cases where a fellow survives the scaffold. Implicit in such a fate is that there was no coup de grace administered after the volley. Is this oversight intentional — even an expression of distaste for the justice of the sentence soldiers had been tasked with visiting on their comrades?

And could distaste extend so far as an intentional or an indifferent failure of marksmanship by the firing details?

Such doubtful speculation can point to Francois Waterlot, who did Clement one better: he survived the execution full stop (dropping to the ground with the volley even though he was actually uninjured) and returned to the ranks, dying in battle on June 10, 1915. This uncommon feat earned him the nickname “le fusillé vivant”, “the shot alive” (somewhat literally) or “the living corpse” (more to the sense of it). That sobriquet is the title of a French book about Waterlot.

France executed about 600 of her own soldiers during World War I, the second-most (to Italy) of all belligerents in that conflagration. There is a great deal about this particular execution on this French page.

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1610: Roger Cadwallador, English priest

1 comment August 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1610, the priest Roger Cadwallador was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Herefordshire, where he had maintained an illicit Catholic ministry for 16 years.

Having spent most of the morning in spiritual preparation (for his end) about ten o’clock he took some corporal food, viz. a little comfortable broth; and calling for a pint of claret wine and sugar, on occasion of a friend that was come to visit him, he made use of the words of bishop Fisher in the like case, as he said, when he was taking a cordial, before the like combat of death; fortitudinem meam ad te domine custodian, Saying in English, he took it to make himself strong to suffer for God. Then as if he had been to go to a feast, he put on his wedding-garment (viz. a new suit of cloaths) which a friend had provided for him, from top to toe, whom he requited with a good and godly exhortation, counselling him to persevere till death in the catholic faith; and giving him directions to bestow twelve pence of his money on the porter; for he kept two shillings in his own pocket to bestow on him that was to lead and drive the horse, when he went to execution.

His jailer pressed him repeatedly, as was usual, to apostasize and save his flesh. The terrors of the gallows being quite real even to martyrs, this menace surely worked for some … but never, it seems for those who reach these grim annals.

Being taken off the hurdle, and brought within sight of the gallows, and the block whereon he was to be quartered, they shewed him these and other instruments of death, leading him between two great fires, the one prepared to burn his heart and bowels, the other to boil his head and quarters: and thinking the sight of these did somewhat terrify him, they promised him once more that none of them should touch him, if he would take the oath; but his christian courage made him persist in his resolution of dying in that quarrel.

Cadwallador would need every drop of that resolution when an artlessly executed hanging unintentionally left him quite sensible to experience the horrors of having his trunk ripped open to tear out organs that would feed those great fires. When “the unskilful executioner”

came to turn the ladder … [Cadwallador] said aloud five or six times, In manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum. Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. And lastly, Domine accipe spiritum meum. Lord receive my spirit. He hunt very long, and in extraordinary pain, by reason that the knot, through the unskilfulness of the hangman, came to be directly under his chin, serving only to pain, and not to dispatch him.

Insomuch that when the people were persuaded that he was thoroughly dead, he put up his hand to the halter, as if he had either meant to shew how his case stood, or else to ease himself: but bethinking himself better, and perhaps a scruple coming into his head to concur to hasten his own death; he had scarce touched the halter, but that he presently pulled away his hand. And within the space of a Pater-noster after, he lifted up his hand again to make the sign of the cross; which made all the standers by much amazed; and some of the vulgar desirous to rid him of his pain, lifted him upwards by the legs twice or thrice, letting him fall again with a swag.

Then after a little rest, when they thought him quite dead, he was cut down: but when he was brought to the block to be quartered, before the bloody butcher could pull off his doublet, he revived and began to breathe; which the multitude perceiving began to murmur; which made the under-sheriff cry out to the executioner to hasten: but before they had stripped him naked he was come to a very perfect breathing.

It was long after they had opened him before they could find his heart, which, notwithstanding, panted in their hands when it was pulled out.

As soon as the head was cut off, one of the sheriff’s men lifted it up on the point of a halbert, expecting the applause of the people, who made no sign that the fact was pleasing to them. Nay, they that were present were struck at the sight, and said, this priest’s behaviour and death would give great confirmation to all the papists of Herefordshire: which saying fell out to be true; for it ministered to them great courage and comfort.

Cadwallador was beatified in 1987.

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.

Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.

The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.

Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.

And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?

One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”

Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.

We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:

Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …

He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.

The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1936: Arthur Gooch, the only execution under the Lindbergh Law

Add comment June 19th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.

Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*

The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.

The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.

At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.

Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.

They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.

A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.

Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.

Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.

By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.

But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)

Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.


Arthur Gooch on the gallows

* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

1 comment April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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