Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1887: William Jackson Marion, who’d be pardoned 100 years later

3 comments March 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1887, William Jackson Marion was executed in Nebraska for the murder of his best friend, John Cameron.

Jackson had always upheld his innocence and his ignorance of Cameron’s fate; he was the picture of “utmost coolness” on the scaffold, declaring only “that I am a sinner, the same as other men. I have made no confession and have none to make. Go to the court dockets and see where men have been tried and acquitted and compare my case with them.”

And then, as given by the Gage County Democrat, the first, last, and only man hanged in Beatrice “stood erect upon the trap-door while his hands and feet were bound, the black cap drawn over his face, and the noose adjusted,” the trap sprung, and after a thousand-plus people had taken the opportunity to view this infamous corpse, it was buried in the potter’s field.

It was then 15 years since young “Jack” Marion and John Cameron had hauled out from Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, looking for work on a railroad.

Somewhere in the wilderness, John Cameron disappeared, and Marion returned to his mother-in-law’s saying his buddy had left. Marion’s whereabouts fade; he’s supposed to have drifted in Indian country: was it flight? It sure looked that way a year later, when a body turned up with clothes that matched Cameron’s … and bullet wounds in the head.

Only a decade after those railroad recruits had rolled out their mule-packs was Marion finally apprehended and tried, and even then, it would take four years (and two trials, and several appeals) to resolve this circumstantial and very cold case.

The matter was indeterminate; the newspapers in town sniped at each other over the proper course — “there is a strong under current of public sentiment that is opposed to hanging, and particularly upon circumstantial evidence, collected ten years after the trial [sic], and connected by the testimony of his mother-in-law who showed … personal malice” complained the Gage County Democrat. Up to the very last, the governor postponed hanging by two weeks in response to a citizens’ petition. As is so often the case, though, the will to grant outright executive clemency went begging.

In 1891, under the headline The Dead Is Alive!, the Beatrice Daily Express delivered a thunderbolt to its readers.

There has always lingered, and always will linger, in the minds of a number of people … a doubt of Jack Marion’s guilt of the murder of John Cameron, and for which crime he was executed in this city four years ago.

The Express has today received almost indisputable information which establishes the startling fact of Jack Marion’s innocence. In other words John Cameron is still alive and was seen at LaCrosse, Kansas, one week ago Saturday, and a statement was obtained of him regarding his whereabouts from the time he and Jack Marion separated … and upon which day the law says Jack Marion killed his boon companion and friend.

The “victim” hadn’t been killed at all — he’s just up and blown town, just like Jack Marion said.

Although John Cameron turned up alive four years after the hanging, it would take another ninety-five for John Law to set things right.

That was when the executed man’s grandson, Elbert Marion, officially petitioned for Jack Marion’s posthumous pardon.*

Considering the century’s wait, the Board acted with relative dispatch on the hand-written petition. The evidence, Elbert pointed out, “has been accepted as fact by many many people including the Nebraska State Historical Society” and the living Cameron’s identity considered well-established by his contemporaries.** Elbert’s documentary history was considerable; in the minutes of the meeting, it’s handled by unanimous vote with no more than a few minutes’ conversation — one board member (the Attorney General, no less) observing of a proposal to kick the can down the road to a later evidentiary hearing, “we have sufficient information now on which to act responsibly.”

Now that’s bureaucracy for you.

In 1986, the Nebraska Pardons Board unanimously voted to issue a posthumous pardon to William Jackson Marion, hanged on March 25, 1887, for the murder of John Cameron. Secretary of State Allen Beermann, a member of the Board, noted that this was only the second request for a posthumous pardon the board has heard during his 16-year tenure. Marion’s grandson, Elbert Marion, requested the pardon, arguing that the coroner had misidentified a skeleton as Cameron, and maintaining that Cameron was seen alive by two of Marion’s relatives four years after Marion’s execution. The Board justified the unconditional pardon by stating “that the public good would be served by granting such application and that a posthumous pardon should be bestowed by the government through its duly authorized officers, as an act of grace.” (Source, a pdf)

Nebraska’s In the Matter of a Posthumous Pardon to William Jackson Marion, under the signature of Gov. Bob Kerrey, took formal effect on the 100th anniversary of its title character’s death — March 25, 1987.

* Elbert Marion’s hypothesis — and it is only that — was that Cameron, fleeing a potential paternity suit, swapped outfits with an Indian who might also have been on the run from his own trouble. Elbert reckons that the trick might have worked a little too well, and Cameron’s pursuers ambushed the Indian by mistake.

** One of Elbert Marion’s letters to the Pardons Board contains an offhanded reference to Kansas’s 1907 abolition of the death penalty; Elbert Marion believed (or had heard) that his grandfather’s execution had helped influence the legislature’s decision, but I have not been able to further substantiate this notion.

With special thanks to Sonya Fauver at the Nebraska Pardons Board and Allen Beermann, Nebraska’s Secretary of State at the time (and one of the signatories on the posthumous pardon) for archival assistance on this story.

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1882: William Heilwagner, onion weeder

Add comment March 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, German immigrant William Heilwagner hanged for murdering his daughter-in-law outside Davenport, Iowa.

“A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man,” writes Laura James. He “made no real effort to explain or defend himself.”

There was little doubt William resented his son’s wife Annie — “the low livedest thing around” he said on the day of her death. This sportive lass yearned for recreation not to be found on Midwestern onion farms, and the neighbors heard the triangular family dust-ups that resulted. There was not a whit of direct evidence against the defendant, but since Otto was out playing pinochle that night, it really only left one suspect.

After the inevitable conviction, a greenhorn aspiring journalist from Davenport, one Charles Edward Russell, took an interest in the queer case. William Heilwagner’s behavior unsettled him; Russell pressed him for a jailhouse interview.

As described in Russell’s 1914 memoir, These Shifting Scenes (available free here), the taciturn Bavarian gave Russell nothing but aggravation.

“Where were you on the night when your daughter-in-law was killed?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Where were you?”

“Oh, I was in the house”

“Well, did you see her get killed?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t see her get killed.”

“Did you hear her cry out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Did you hear her cry out?”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Did she go to bed as usual that night?”

“Who? Annie? Oh, yes, I guess. She go to bed all right.”

“Did you hear her get up in the night? Did you hear anybody come to the house? Did you hear any talking or fighting?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Well, you knew that she went to bed that night and she wasn’t there the next morning and she never came back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Didn’t I think what was strange?”

“That she had gone away in the night and never come back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t think nothing about it. I just go weed my onions.”

It’s enough to drive a body to distraction. Between the prisoner’s feeble story and apparent disinterest in his fate, Russell figured the old weirdo did it — discounting Heilwagner’s scaffold declaration of innocence.

“Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime.” Not one of us that heard believed him. What guilty man is ever punished? What murderer, however hardened, or however certain his crime, fails to protest on the gallows in the like terms and with the same hardihood? All the experienced reporters there told me they had heard such assertions often on the like occasion and were moved not a whit.

Ten years later, Heilwagner’s son Otto leapt to his death from a bridge in Quincy, Illinois.

Otto left behind a suicide note confessing to the murder of his wife: he had secretly rowed back to the house in the dead of night, enticed Annie out of the house, and murdered her for infidelity. Heilwagners, father and son, kept their peace about the secret while William hanged.

“Who? Me?” the old man had said, in answer to my questions. He knew it all, he knew who killed Annie, and he went calmly to his death to save his guilty son. Dull old man, chill and repulsive, he had in him so much of the hero and so much of love. “For greater love hath no man than this.”

It was a rugged introduction for a novice to the business of crime detecting and legalized life-taking. If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man. Post facto illumination — how foolish it is! I can see now the indications and signs and hints that meant nothing to me then. But even though I knew at the time nothing of the full horror of that day the experience sickened me of hangings. I have never since acquiesced in any capital punishment. It is as illogical as it is profitless. I have had in my time more than my share of these spectacles and I take it as a fact worthy of serious reflection that I have seen the state put to death eleven persons and five of these I know to have been absolutely innocent, while of the guilt of a sixth and the mental responsibility of a seventh there were the gravest doubts. Murder upon murder, and if I should be asked what good or advantage society reaped from the death of any or all of these, I should be unable to say, nor has there yet appeared in my range of experience any person more expert than I to make that answer.

Among the innocent Russell reckoned were the Haymarket martyrs, whose hanging he covered a few years later for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

His keen sense of injustice — and a somewhat better-developed nose for a story — led Russell on to a career as the “prince of muckrakers,” credited with some of the signature coups of turn-of-the-century journalism, and a place on the masthead as a co-founder of the NAACP.

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1669: Anna Ebeler, lying-in maid

Add comment March 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this day in 1669, the Bavarian city of Augsburg executed 67-year-old Anna Ebeler for bewitching a string of infant children and just-delivered mothers.

Detail view of a pictorial history of the “witch” Anna Ebeler: the panels display her mutilated with tongs as she is led to execution; then, beheaded at the scaffold.

Ebeler plied her client with a refreshing bowl of malmsey and brandy soup (I could go for some myself), and the mother fell into a delirium that was bad enough to kill her but not so bad as to impact her credibility when she accused her lying-in maid of culinary devilry.

Once the accusation was “out there,” every other family on Ebeler’s c.v. whose birth experience was less than satisfactory — and there must have been a few of them, since infant mortality was off the charts in the 17th century — came forward with its own tale of woe.

Ebeler confessed when threatened with torture.

According to Lyndal Roper, who uses this affair as the touchstone event in “Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany” (History Workshop, Autumn 1991) — it was one of “just” 18 scattered witchcraft executions in a relatively forward-thinking burg — witchcraft

beliefs rested on a whole economy of bodily fluids. A post menopausal woman, the old witch was in a sense a dry woman who, instead of feeding others well, diverted nourishment to her own selfish ends. Older widows were believed to have the power to ruin young men sexually, and youths were warned against marrying such women because they were sexually ravenous, and would suck out their seed, weakening them with their insatiable hunger for seminal fluid and contaminating them with their own impurities.

I could go for some of that, too.

At any rate, a lying-in maid like Anna Ebeler — a woman hired by the birth mother for a ritualistic period of several post-natal weeks of maternal sequestration — put herself at risk (quoth Roper) of having projected onto her all the delivered mother’s psychological amibiguity about her condition, all her illicit resentment of her progeny, all her own latent fear of death after childbirth. All the ingredients, in short, of post-partum depression … in supernatural form.

[I]nstead of seeking the source of her ills in post-natal depression, within herself, as we [modern people] would, the mother’s anxieties about the child’s fate and her own ability to nourish it were directed outwards, so that harm to either mother or baby was believed to have been caused by another. Here we might make use of what Melanie Klein says about splitting, which allows intolerable feelings of hostility and malice to be projected onto another, so that the mother recognizes only benevolence in herself, projecting the evil feelings about herself onto the ‘other’ mother. The lying-in-maid was thus destined for the role of the evil mother, because she could be seen to use her feminine power to give oral gratification to do the reverse – to suck the infant dry, poison the mother and her milk and, in the most extreme form of witch fantasies, to kill, dismember and eat the child at the witches’ sabbath.

That dish, we’ll pass on.

Roper makes an interesting and nuanced exploration into the psychic space of witchcraft accusations, usually shaped by female-on-female charges. It’s terrain further developed in her Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany.

One last item from Roper, of specific relevance to the lot who haunt these pages:

There is a further collusive dynamic at work in interrogation, that between witch and torturer. Torture was carried out by the town hangman, who would eventually be responsible for the convicted witch’s execution. Justice in the early modern period was not impersonal: the act of execution involved two individuals who, by the time of execution, were well acquainted with each other. Particularly in witch trials, torture and the long period of time it took for a conviction to be secured gave the executioner a unique knowledge of an individual’s capacity to withstand pain, and of their physiological and spiritual reactions to touch. In a society where nakedness was rare, he knew her body better than anyone else. He washed and shaved the witch, searching all the surfaces of her body for the tell-tale diabolic marks – sometimes hidden ‘in her shame’, her genitals. He bound up her wounds after the torture. On the other hand, he was a dishonourable member of society, excluded from civic intercourse, and forced to intermarry amongst his own kind. His touch might pollute; yet his craft involved him in physically investigating the witch, a woman who if innocent was forbidden him. He advised on the mode of execution, assessing how much pain the witch might stand, a function he could potentially exploit to show mercy or practise cruelty. In consequence, a bond of intense personal dependence on the part of the witch on her persecutor might be established. Euphrosina Endriss was greatly agitated when a visiting executioner from nearby Memmingen inspected her. She pleaded that ‘this man should not execute her, she would rather that Hartman should execute her, for she knew him already’.

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1733: John Julian, pirate and slave

2 comments March 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1733, a rebellious slave named Julian the Indian was hanged for murdering a bounty hunter who pursued his escape.

Julian the Indian is generally believed to be John Julian (or Julien), a mixed-race African-descended Mosquito Indian from central America who was among the crew of the egalitarian pirate Samuel Bellamy. Julian appears to be the first recorded black pirate in the New World.

Julian was one of only two pirates who survived the wreck of Bellamy’s Whydah off Cape Cod in 1717 (Bellamy himself was lost in the incident), and was jailed in Massachusetts. There, he apparently becomes the “Julian the Indian” purchased that same year by colonial pol John Quincy.

The “unruly” Julian gave his owner no end of escape attempts and was sold on to another owner, from whom he made one escape attempt too many.

There’s a gallows pamphlet, “The last speech and dying advice of poor Julian: who was executed the 22d of March, 1733. for the murder of Mr. John Rogers of Pembroke,” but there’s no juicy buccaneer adventure in it, or even slave escape adventure — just a lot of generic pabulum about having forsaken God, not unlike the generic woodcut illustrating it.

You’d have to say, a sad end for a multinational swashbuckler left over from the vanished Golden Age of Piracy who had seen things these New Englanders wouldn’t believe, and shattered his own life hurling it against his fetters.

A noble soul, as we may reckon, destined to wind up meat for some wet-behind-the-ears colonial physician.

According to the (factual) epilogue of the (historical novel) Master of the Sweet Trade: A Story of the Pirate Samuel Bellamy, Mariah Hallett, and the Whydah,

It was common for the unclaimed bodies of executed prisoners to be given to medical students for dissection, and according to an article in The Boston Newsletter, on March 30, 1733 John’s corpse was used for this purpose. The article goes on to tell us that, “The Bones are preserv’d in order to be fram’d into a Skeleton”. This may be the source of the idea that the skeleton is in the collection of the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Current research at the museum says this is untrue, and that neither the skeleton, nor the bag made from the skin of a pirate, also in the collection, are believed to belong to John Julian.

John Quincy’s great-grandson, the American President John Quincy Adams, became a staunch slavery abolitionist.

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1873: William Foster

1 comment March 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1873, William Foster — who spent two years warding off execution — finally succumbed to New York’s hangman.

Foster’s case was a long-term headline-grabber: he drunkenly accosted a couple of perfect strangers on the Broadway Line (think horses, not trains), then smashed the man of the party, Avery Putnam, with a conductor’s device going by the sinister name of “car-hook”. His case turned, both juridically and in the public eye, on the question of whether Foster had formed an “intent” sufficient to justify a first-degree murder conviction; the killer’s own jury later joined appeals for his reprieve, having felt buffaloed by public opinion in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

This case also clearly had a significant class component — a respectable gentleman randomly slain by a workingman — and the newspapers’ coverage frequently touches on obvious bourgeois anxiety, or uncertainty as to just how badly those of Foster’s socioeconomic position would take the hanging.

These and other themes of the media coverage will look very familiar a century and a half later. The only things missing are the tweets.

The Editorial Board

New York Times, May 28, 1871

Abolish the Car-Hook.

… the fatal weapon which slew Mr. Putnam … a weapon which we know to be deadly is so familiar to the hands, and possibly the heads of a large portion of the population, that they think nothing of using it at all. Of course the statement on which we found these conclusions may be incorrect. But it seems probable enough, and is confirmed by the numerous cases of assault with car-hooks reported since the Putnam murder. Before the light of that great tragedy brought into unusual prominence the fatal tool, it is fair to presume that it was not less active in its work of evil than at present.

It is not pleasant, then, to reflect that every time we travel on a horse-car whose conductor or driver hapens to be a trifle drunk, or unusually passionate and vindictive, we run a certain risk, slight it may be, still an appreciable risk, of being brained with an instrument to which the assailant’s hand instinctively turns. And since temptation is the firmest ally of crime, we might very properly begin our street-car reform by abolishing the car-hook altogether … Even if the replacing appliance be less convenient for the purposes, and less satisfactory in its workings, it is better that the driver should have a little more trouble and delay than that he should have constantly at hand a means and a provocative to murder. We do not doubt, however, that the present model of car-hook may readily be improved on, and at the expense of a little ingenuity, made not only harmless, but more complete.

The Murderer

New York Times, June 4, 1871


The Condemned Prisoner Reviews His Case.

He Never Intended to Kill Mr. Putnam — The Verdict of Death the Result of Public Resentment — He Thinks He Has Been Unjustly Treated.

TO THE PUBLIC: Sufficient time has elapsed since my conviction for the murder of Mr. Putnam to allow me to make that appeal to the cool judgment of the public which my counsel could not make in a court-room, oppressed by the usual legal formalities. I have not much to say, but in my awful position what little appeal I make is invested with a terrible importance, to me at least. After a short and impartial trial, before the case was submitted to the jury, Judge Cardozo* charged almost directly in my favor — at least, in modification of the verdict. He directed the jury that a fit of passion did not imply the requisite degree of malice justifying a verdict of murder in the first degree. He almost as much as told them that in my case there was no evidence proving that I intended to kill Mr. Putnam — that death was a result I never contemplated, and that however furious the resentment of the public might be, it would not be in accordance with their oath to convict me of a malicious purpose to kill Mr. Putnam.

The jury was evidently inclined to regard this direction of Judge Cardozo, but they were afraid to abide by it thoroughly. Public opinion was too strong; and because, I believe, it did not stop to consider my case coolly, it compelled that jury to bring me in guilty of downright murder in the first degree. But even then they went as far as they dared in recommending me to mercy. They recommended me to mercy because they felt that there was something wrong with the rest of their verdict, and they wanted to make the best balance they could without taking any responsibility themselves. Now I make this appeal from my condemned cell, because the public are beginning to believe with Judge Cardozo. Judge Cardozo said the truth. He said I never meant to kill Mr. Putnam. He knew from the very evidence that there was nothing further from my intention — and it is the intention which makes the crime.

What are the facts of the case? I had been drinking heavily — God knows I can’t excuse that. I was stupid drunk, mad drunk, and I got into a drunken difficulty with a strange man. That was Mr. Putnam. He said something which aggravated my drunken madness. Without any thought, without any calculation, on the impulse of blind fury, I struck him with the first thing that came to hand. That blow was never intended to kill Mr. Putnam. It was struck with hardly any intention at all. It was the work of a madman, not of a deliberate murderer. It was struck with no recognized weapon — just the first thing that came to hand. If it had fallen on the top of his head it would probably never have killed him. But it did kill him, and for the blow which I struck, without having any definite intention, resulting in his death, I am condemned to death in revenge. No one will pretend to say that I deliberately set about to effect Mr. Putnam’s death. I made no attempt to escape. I identified myself. I claimed to have struck him, having no idea, no earthly notion that my drunken blow would result in bringing about my conviction of murder.

Public resentment and exasperation brought about the verdict. There are men in the Tombs who have killed others soberly, in cold blood, and there has been no hue and cry after them. A man who had a quarrel with another and then went home and procured a knife with which he came back and stabbed him to death, deliberately and in cold blood, was sent to Sing Sing for four years the other day. There are others in this prison convicted of murder with weapons known to be deadly — so that their intentions in using them could not be doubted a moment — and they are safe. … I was tried out of my turn … while the public was resolved to have my blood as soon as possible. Out of these I alone am selected to undergo capital punishment, because mine was a sensational case.

No one can doubt the truth of this, and it is because this is the truth known to God and sworn to by me in the shadow of death, that I make my appeal to the public. I am doomed to die because a wicked drunken freak resulted in the death of a man, whom I no more intended to harm seriously than I would my own child … Is the recommendation to mercy to mean nothing? Does anybody refuse to see in it the protest of the jury against the pressure which forced them to bring me to the gallows? The public, which was furious, compelled the jury to act as it did, and I make my appeal, therefore, to the public.

I implore the public to consider my case, now that I am sentenced, and any evasion of law in my favor is impossible, coolly and dispassionately. I appeal to the public to be just and fear not. And what I have to say in my behalf I say with the solemnity of my situation. I make my appeal as a condemned murderer, sentenced to a speedy and ignominious death, helpless and powerless, but confident that the same feeling which on an impulse secured my conviction, will, when cool and deliberate, do even me proper justice.


The Widow

New York Times, Nov. 22, 1872


The Widow Sues the Railroad Company for Damage.

The murder of Avery D. Putnam, for which William Foster now stands condemned, has been revived in the Courts in a new form. it appears that Mrs. Putnam, the widow, some time since, instituted a suit against the Broadway and Seventh-avenue Railroad Company, to recover damages to the extent of $5,000, (the limit of the law.) for the loss of her husband, which loss she charges to have been the result of the culpable negligence of the Company and its servants.

[she won -ed.]

The Minister

New York Herald-Tribune, March 6, 1873

(One letter among more than an entire page’s worth of clemency petitions the Tribune reprinted, with a note of scorn.)


This young man has been familiarly known to me from his childhood. He grew up in the Sunday school and congregation of my church … of which his family have made a part since his birth. He was always a quiet, orderly, and good boy — he grew up an industrious and well behaved young man — he has never been a bad man or a drunkard.

The whole circumstances of this sad event which has placed him in his present position, he has personally related, very minutely, to me … I have visited him regularly as his pastor. He has presented himself to me as a gentle, quiet, penitent young man, and I have had much encouragement in visiting him.

Foster does not in the least excuse himself from the just infliction and endurance of his sentence, if it be the will of God that he must meet it …

I really think the young man entitled to a commutation of a sentence for willful murder in the first degree … He acted in blind haste, with no malicious intent, and he has groaned in anguish over the remembrance of his crime. His honored parents and excellent family, his young wife and little children, his own industrious life, his really quiet and habitual deportment, his expressions of anger, hostility, or self-defense, unite to present his case to me as one peculiarly appropriate for Executive mercy. … I do not know what efforts others may make in his behalf; but, as the pastor of his family — and of all his early life, and as now his gratefully accepted pastor in the hour of his sorrow — I feel compelled to implore for him the mercy which you alone can exercise.

Stephen Tyng

[Tyng, an Episcopal, was a celebrity preacher in the Big Apple, and built an early “megachurch”. He is the namesake of, but unrelated to, the man who founded the U.S. National Park System — Stephen Tyng Mather. -ed.]

The Humorist

New York Herald-Tribune, March 10, 1873

Sir: I have read the Foster petitions in Thursday’s Tribune. The lawyers’ opinions do not disturb me, because I know that those same gentlemen could make as able an argument in favor of Judas Iscariot, which is a great deal for me to say, for I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman.** The attitude of the jury does not unsettle a body, I must admit; and it seems plain that they would have modified their verdict to murder in the second degree if the Judge’s charge had permitted it. But when I come to the petitions of Foster’s friends and find out Foster’s true character, the generous tears will flow — I cannot help it. How easy it is to get a wrong impression of a man. I perceive that from childhood up this one has been a sweet, docile thing, full of pretty ways and gentle impulses, the charm of the fireside, the admiration of society, the idol of the Sunday school. I recognize in him the divinest nature that has ever glorified any mere human being. I perceive that the sentiment with which he regarded temperance was a thing that amounted to frantic adoration. I freely confess that it was the most natural thing in the world for such an organism as this to get drunk and insult a stranger, and then beat his brains out with a car-hook because he did not seem to admire it. Such is Foster. And to think that we came so near losing him! How do we know but that he is the Second Advent? And yet, after all, if the jury had not been hampered in their choice of a verdict I think I could consent to lose him.

The humorist who invented trial by jury played a colossal practical joke upon the world, but since we have the system we ought to try to respect it. A thing which is not thoroughly easy to do, when we reflect that by command of the law a criminal juror must be an intellectual vacuum, attaching to a melting heart and perfectly macaronian bowels of compassion.

I have had no experience in making laws or amending them, but still I cannot understand why, when it takes twelve men to inflict the death penalty upon a person, it should take any less than twelve more to undo their work. If I were a legislature, and had just been elected, and had not had time to sell out, I would put the pardoning and commuting power into the hands of twelve able men instead of dumping so huge a burden upon the shoulders of one poor petition-persecuted individual.

Mark Twain

The Future Attorney General

New York Times, March 20, 1873


Letter to Gov. Dix by Edwards Pierrepont.

Judge Edwards Pierrepont has addressed a letter to Gov. Dix on the case of Foster. He says:

The decision of the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the court below, whereby William Foster was condemned to be hanged for the murder of Avery D. Putnam. But that decision would have been precisely the same if Mr. Putnam had appeared in court, and proved that he was still alive … The rigid rules of law do not allow an appellate court to look beyond the record, even though the court might behold the living man, for whose murder the accused was condemned to die.

It is for this very reason, and to meet cases like the one before you, that the high Executive is clothed with extraordinary powers, adequate to correct all such mistakes, and to consider all facts and circumstances outside of the legal record, in furtherance of the highest justice, and beyond the functions of a court of law …

If William Foster is put to death for the premeditated murder of Mr. Putnam, very few of the reflecting community will not believe that he was executed for a greater crime than he in fact committed, and, to avoid the repetition of such an act of injustice, the aggrieved sentiment of the public may demand the abolition of the death penalty entirely.

Foster was convicted a few days after Mr. Putnam died, while the public mind was fevered and alarmed, and the verdict was not in accordance with the real convictions of the jury, nor in harmony with any reasonable deductions from the evidence …

the hanging of Foster would savor more of vengeance than of justice … and the reaction likely to take place in the public mind might cause a repeal of those laws which are now a wholesome restraint upon evil men.

The Aftermath

New York Herald, Nov. 1, 1873


Justice can no longer be said to be blindfolded in New York. The verdict in the case of Stokes [murderer of bankster James Fisk -ed.] is a mockery and a farce. Jack Reynolds said, “Hanging for murder is played out in New York;” but his assertion would have been much truer if he ahd added, “for the rich.” If Stokes was not guilty of murder in the first degree then the hanging of Foster was nothing but downright murder. Stokes had not the slightest excuse, while Foster had a great many … The jury must have been influenced by some outside influence or there must have been some flaw in the presentment of the case by the prosecution. This verdict should cause our citizens to blush. It shall be recorded in the history fo our city as an everlasting disgrace and humiliation. Our citizens, it is true, are looking on patiently at this way of administering law; but the time will yet come when they will take the administration (if driven so far) of it into their own hands and adopt the rule of the pioneers of the West for murders – viz., “Lynch law.”


* Father of eventual Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo.

** Congress-bashing is a timeless sport, but the body was in particularly low esteem at this moment because of the Credit Mobilier scandal.

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1393: John of Nepomuk, Bohemian rhapsody

1 comment March 20th, 2011 Headsman

This is the date in 1393 when the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) was tossed from Prague’s Charles Bridge into the Vltava River to drown at the order of the Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus.

Baroque statue of John Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge from which he was hurled. (cc) image from Jaguar Julie

A relief detail ((cc) image from Charles Hoffman) on this statue depicts the moment of Nepomuk’s martyrdom.

This Wenceslaus — not be confused with the good King Wenceslaus of song — had a tetchy relationship with powers ecclesiastical and temporal.

But although Wenceslaus did martyr a fellow by the handle of John of Pomuk or Nepomuk, the latter makes this blog because of political tension centuries afterward. Despite the date of his corporeal death, John of Nepomuk is really a counter-reformation saint.

Between the late 14th century and Catholic Austria’s bloody 17th century triumph over Czech nationalism the historical Nepomucene parted company pretty definitively.

The real John of Nepomuk was the General Vicar of the local archbishop, John of Jenstein (or Jenzenstein), whose skirmishes with Wenceslaus over the boundaries of royal authority caused historian Albert Wratislaw to draw a Thomas a Becket comparison.*

In the event, the latest manifestation of that disputatious relationship — the king’s attempt to seize some monastic revenues — caused Wenceslaus to completely fly off the handle and arrest several of the archbishop’s advisors, among whom was our sainted martyr.

Wenceslaus personally oversaw their torture and ordered their drowning, but someone talked him out of the execution part. The king at that point had a sort of mini-Guantanamo Bay situation: he had in hand several people whom he had arrested arbitrarily and tortured, whose release would only further embarrass his own royal self. He therefore prevailed upon them to trade their silence for their liberty.

The other arrestees counted their blessings and accepted this expedient exchange. John of Nepomuk, perhaps because he was already tortured near to the point of death, refused. He was consequently “dragged through the streets to the bridge, there his hands were tied behind him, a piece of wood was thrust into his mouth, his feet were tied to his head in the form of a wheel, and he was thrown into the river.”*

The Nepomucene’s legend really grew after his death: in its most splendidly devotional form, as the proto-martyr for the seal of the confessional, which he supposedly kept as the queen’s confessor when Wenceslaus suspected her of infidelity. (An ironic inversion to say the least, since it was actually John’s more timorous co-accused who distinguished themselves with their silence.)

This is a much more edifying martyrdom altogether, so little wonder that the sourcing on John of Pomuk over the succeeding centuries is a hot mess; later scholars would actually speculate as to whether there might not have been two priests of this name who were both martyred by Wenceslaus, so dissimilar were the legends.

Nepomuk’s elevation to legend, and thereafter to the patron saint of Bohemia, would come in part thanks to a great Czech religious reformer who arose at the end of Wenceslaus’s reign — Jan Hus.

This other, heretical John became woven into the emerging Bohemian national sense; he still remains there today. When the Catholic authorities beat back a Protestant and nationalist revolt in 1620 and imposed Catholicism from above,** Saint John of Nepomuk, martyr, was ready at hand for propagandists of the new order. At least, the legendary, confessional-keeping Nepomuk was ready … because this was not a job for the random cleric-bureaucrat who’d been done to death in some forgotten dispute over rent.

For three hundred years two holy men have been rivals for the reverence of the Cech people. One of them, Saint John Nepomuk, was exalted by the Jesuits, who after the battle of the White Hill in 1620 sought to win back the Cechs to the Roman obedience. … His rival for the position of national hero has been Jan Hus, who, during the reign and under the favour of that same king Wenceslas, led the revolt of the Cechs against the ecclesiastical domination of Rome and the secular domination of Germany, and was martyred as a heretic and rebel at the council of Constance in 1415. From that date until the extinction of the independent Bohemian state by the forces of the Empire and the Counter-Reformation in 1620, Hus was publicly honoured by his fellow-countrymen as the champion of national and religious liberty. From 1620 to 1918 his rival was exalted in his place …†

John of Nepomuk today is depicted in statuary on the Charles Bridge (the spot on the bridge where he was thrown over is also marked with a plaque) and is well-represented throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. Owing to his patronage portfolios of bridges and flood victims, you might also find the Nepomucene in many a topical posting throughout the world — like the very spot of Christianity’s European triumph, Rome’s Milvian Bridge.

(Somewhat less gloriously, the promulgation of this saint’s name and fame mean it also attaches to John Nepomuk Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant to the U.S. who attempted in 1912 to assassinate former president cum presidential candidate yet again Theodore Roosevelt.)

* Wratislaw, “John of Jenstein, Archbishop of Prague, 1378-1397,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 7 (1878), pp. 30-57. Wratislaw wrote a now-public-domain book about St. John available here.

** Bohemia’s Catholicization is perhaps the classic case in early modern Europe of the Reformation being rolled back from above and from afar. The recent (and none too affordable) book Converting Bohemia: Force and Persuasion in the Catholic Reformation takes a nuanced survey of Bohemia’s transformation from a Protestant to a Catholic bastion … and as the title suggests, finds many of the Catholic components home-grown.

† R.R. Betts, “Jan Hus,” History, Volume 24, Issue 94 (September 1939), pp. 97–112.

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1906: Pyotr Schmidt, Sevastopol uprising leader

1 comment March 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date* in 1906, tsarist Russia executed the naval officer who had made bold to style himself Commander of the rebellious Black Sea Fleet.

During the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution, our firebrand Pyotr Schmidt was lieutenant commander of a destroyer stationed at the Black Sea port of Sebastopol/Sevastopol.

Schmidt made an impassioned revolutionary speech that got him arrested, and was in turn freed by protesting workers and soldiers.

So they knew just the guy to call when a collection of Black Sea Fleet vessels finally out and mutinied. And Pyotr Schmidt knew how to talk the talk.

The glorious Black Sea Fleet, sacredly devoted to the people, demands Your Majesty to immediately call a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, and no longer obeys orders of Your ministers.

Commander of the Fleet P. Schmidt.

Nicholas II decided he was better advised to just order the mutinying ships stormed, and Schmidt was taken prisoner.

The most famous ship under Schmidt’s “command” was, of course, the battleship Potemkin, which trumps the cruiser Aurora as the revolutionariest hulk of floating steel in the Russian fleet by virtue of Sergei Eisenstein‘s silent cinematic celebration of the Sevastopol mutiny, The Battleship Potemkin.

With this sort of insurrectionary credential, Schmidt was a popular choice for Soviet-era naming and renaming — streets, bridges, other naval vessels.

(And come this, er, sea change in fortunes, the commander of the firing squad that did Pyotr Schmidt to death was himself arrested, and shot in 1923 by the Cheka.)

Schmidt thereby contributed his name to an entirely different innovation in the Russian language: in one Ostap Bender novel, there’s a “Children of Lieutenant Schmidt” network of con artists each claiming (in a different part of that vast country) to be the martyred mutineer’s progeny and mooching the material comforts due such an impressive lineage.

So striking and popular was this portrayal that “children (or sons) of Lt. Schmidt” remains a going Russian idiom for anyone running a similar scam.

* March 19 was the Gregorian date; it was March 6 by the obsolete Julian calendar still hanging on in Russia at this time.

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1647: Mary Martin, infanticide

Add comment March 18th, 2011 Headsman

From Portland in the Past: With Historical Notes of Old Falmouth, by William Goold.

[Michael Mitton] came from England … in 1637 … [and] lived near the Cape Elizabeth landing of Portland bridge … “One Mr. Mitton related of a triton, or mere-man which he saw in Casco bay. The gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small Island for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopped off with a hatchet by Mr. Mitton, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.” …

There is one indelible blot on the character of Mitton. In 1640, Winter wrote to Trelawney from Richmond’s island this: “Mr. Francis Martin is here with us, and is not settled in any place as yet to remain. This next week I shall go up to Casco with him to seat him in some place there. I know not how he will lie here well, except he have brought money with himself, and here is nothing to be gotten without hard labor.” Martin was evidently a decayed gentleman, or he would not have been styled Mister by Winter. This was an honorable title then. Two years later Winter again mentions Martin to his principal: “Also herein goes a bill upon Mr. John Martin for his uncle Francis Martin. Also he was with us five months and spent upon our provision, and cannot pay for anything. He is in a bad way of living here with his two children. He plants a little Indian corn and that is all he hath to live upon. He hath neither goat nor pig, nor any thing else. He is old and cannot labor, and his children are not brought up to work, so I know not what shift he will make to live.”

These “two children” were daughters. The fate of the eldest is given by Willis, being the substance of her history as written in Winthrop’s journal. Willis says: “Martin, an early inhabitant of Casco, was the father of two daughters, whom, being about to return to England to arrange his affairs, he left in the family of Michael Mitton. During their residence of several months with him in 1646, he insinuated himself into the favor of the eldest, named Mary, whom he seduced. She afterwards went to Boston and was delivered of a bastard child, of which she confessed Mitton to be the father. Overcome with shame, she endeavored to conceal her first crime by the commission of a more heinous one in the murder of her infant; for this she perished on the scaffold at the early age of twenty-two years, in March, 1647.” Cotton Mather says of her trial: “When she touched the face of the child before the jury, the blood came fresh into it, so she confessed the whole truth concerning it.” He also says: “Her carriage in her imprisonment and at her execution was very penitent. But there was this remarkable at her execution. She acknowledged her twice essaying to kill the child, and now through the unskilfulness of the executioner she was turned off the ladder twice, before she died.”

The York records give the date of Mitton’s death to be in 1660.

From the Journal of John Winthrop (also available on Google books):

finding herself to be with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it, and though divers did suspect it, and some told her mistress their fears, yet her behavior was so modest, and so faithful she was in her service, as her mistress would not give ear to any such report, but blamed such as told her of it. But, her time being come, she was delivered of a woman child in a back room by herself upon the 13 (10) (December 13) in the night, and the child was born alive, but she kneeled upon the head of it, till she thought it had been dead, and having laid it by, the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead. Then she put it into her chest, and having cleansed the room, she went to bed, and arose again the next day about noon, and went about her business, and so continued till the nineteenth day, that her master and mistress went on shipboard to go for England.

They being gone, and she removed to another house, a midwife in the town, having formerly suspected her, and now coming to her again, found she had been delivered of a child, which, upon examination, she confessed, but said it was still-born, and so she put it into the fire. But, search being made, it was found in her chest, and when she was brought before the jury, they caused her to touch the face of it, whereupon the blood came fresh into it. Whereupon she confessed the whole truth, and a surgeon, being called to search the body of the child, found a fracture in the skull. Before she was condemned, she confessed, that she had prostituted her body to another also, one Sears. She behaved herself very penitently while she was in prison, and at her death, 18 (1,) (March 18) complaining much of the hardness of her heart. She confessed, that the first and second time she committed fornication, she prayed for pardon, and promised to commit it no more; and the third time she prayed God, that if she did fall into it again, he would make her an example, and therein she justified God, as she did in the rest. Yet all the comfort God would afford her, was only trust (as she said) in his mercy through Christ. After she was turned off and had hung a space, she spake, and asked what they did mean to do. Then some stepped up, and turned the knot of the rope backward, and then she soon died.

Cotton Mather’s father Increase Mather favored the occasion with a sermon on Ezekiel 16:20-21 — “‘is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children?'” Whereof great notice was taken.”

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1999: Andrew Kokoraleis, the last ever in Illinois?

4 comments March 17th, 2011 Headsman

There was certainly no cause when killer Andrew Kokoraleis suffered lethal injection at 12:34 this afternoon to suppose that his would be the last execution in the illustrious history of Illinois.

Against all odds, however, it was the last.

Illinois has had plenty of poster boys for death penalty foes — Rolando Cruz; the Ford Heights Four — but Andrew Kokoraleis was hardly among them.

As a member of a satanic murder cult branded the Ripper Crew, he’d participated in abducting, raping, mutilating, murdering, and cannibalizing prostitutes under the charismatic sway of one Robin Gecht.*

The exploits of Gecht, Edward Spreitzer, and brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis in the Dark Lord’s services are nauseatingly recounted at and the spellbinding true-crime book Deadly Thrills.

By the time Andrew Kokoraleis’s appeals had wended their way through the courts, it was high tide for capital punishment in the United States: a modern record 98 executions were carried out in 1999; a Texas governor best-known to the general public for his prodigious execution output was lining up the White House bid that would hurl America into much deadlier pastimes; a law stripping condemned prisoners of federal appellate avenues had just been passed with overwhelming support. Even liberal Democrats dared not touch the divisive issue of capital punishment for fear of appearing soft on crime.

Though sub-Texan in its gurney output, the Land of Lincoln was cranking out a consistent 1 to 2 executions per year in the late 1990’s. It had just inaugurated a Republican governor who as a lawmaker had voted to reinstitute that state’s death penalty statute. Illinois held well over 100 death row prisoners, including one of Kokoraleis’s own confederates from the Ripper Crew.

So the 21st century figured to present an ample harvest for the Illinois death chamber.

Even as Ryan’s graft-plagued term was beginning, however, the executioner’s swan song was underway.

Just days into Ryan’s term, a man named Anthony Porter, who had avoided execution by the narrowest of margins the year before, walked out of Illinois death row a free man — exonerated by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class.

“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter.”

-George Ryan

Ryan okayed the execution of Kokoraleis six weeks later, but the piqued governor would soon impose an executive moratorium on further executions.

Ryan’s personal journey on the death penalty during his four years in the governor’s office, as linked to his state’s journey over the past decades, must be one of the rare operatic sagas in modern American political life.

Days before he left office (bound for trial on federal corruption charges, and thence to prison), George Ryan emptied death row in Illinois — including a commutation to Ripper Crew member Edward Spreitzer.

Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.

I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.

The legislature couldn’t reform it.

Lawmakers won’t repeal it.

But I will not stand for it.

I must act.

Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.

This move drew plenty of criticism, but the George Ryan death penalty moratorium persisted through the terms of his successors.

Finally, legislators did repeal it.

Early in 2011, longstanding efforts to push that moratorium into formal abolition finally bore fruit in the state legislature. After a protracted silence on the matter, Gov. Pat Quinn** finally — just eight days ago as of this posting — signed that legislation into law, simultaneously commuting all the state’s then-existing death sentences.

Naturally, no government can bind its successors, and laws eliminated today might be reinstated tomorrow. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this date in 1999 marks the final destination not just for Andrew Kokoraleis — but for the Illinois executioner.

* To magnify this troupe’s outsized crime-tabloid appeal, Gecht, the leader, had actually worked for legendary serial sex-killer John Wayne Gacy.

** In earlier years, Quinn was a political rival of George Ryan.

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1244: Two hundred-plus Cathars at Montsegur

1 comment March 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1244, over two hundred Cathar heretics submitted themselves to the stake rather than submit to the Catholic church.

Though not literally the last of the Cathars, that outlawed dualistic sect in the south of France whose extirpation occupied the papacy for much of the 13th century, this date was the last great stand and the signature massacre of the Albigensian Crusade. Afterwards, only minor outposts and isolated individuals would remain available for mop-up duty.

Heretical holdouts, fleeing a malevolent Inquisition established in the Languedoc by victorious Catholic armies, holed up at a few Cathar strongholds of which the most impressive was the mountain citadel of Montsegur.

The spectacular attraction of Montsegur tourists see today is not the legendary Cathar castle — which was razed by its conquerors — but a subsequent rebuild. (cc) image from SarahLouiseHathaway

Finally in 1243-1244, a massive Catholic army invested Montsegur; one can’t help but compare this hopeless confederation of fearless zealouts ranged against the mighty temporal powers to the Jews at Masada — and as with Masada, it were death to succumb to the besiegers.

When Montsegur finally surrendered, two hundred-some — the reported counts differ slightly — were burned at the stake for refusing to renounce their faith; many of them had actually taken sacred vows in the days before Montsegur fell.

They were Nazis, Dude?

The National Socialists’ weird quest to outrace Indiana Jones for mystical artifacts also brought the swastika to Montsegur, under the direction of the occult medievalist Otto Rahn.

Rahn thought the Holy Grail may have been secreted at Montsegur under Cathar protection, a half-literal, half-metaphorical secret goblet carrying the heretics’ forbidden gnostic wisdom from the day of Mani.

(Other Nazis, allegedly including Heinrich Himmler himself, favored the similar-sounding Spanish fortress of Montserrat. Dan Brown prefers the Knights Templar, who could have laid their gauntlets on the cup of Christ when a few Cathars allegedly slipped through Montsegur’s encirclement carrying some unidentified mysterious secret.)

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