Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1896: H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer

3 comments May 7th, 2010 Headsman

(Thanks for the public-domain “guest post” on prolific serial killer H.H. Holmes to Harry Brodribb Irving, from his A Book of Remarkable Criminals (Google Books | Project Gutenberg). Also enjoy The Holmes-Pitezel Case (1896).)

Honour Amongst Thieves

In the year 1894 Mr. Smith, a carpenter, of Philadelphia, had patented a new saw-set. Wishing to make some money out of his invention, Mr. Smith was attracted by the sign:

B. F. PERRY
PATENTS BOUGHT AND SOLD

which he saw stretched across the window of a two-storied house, 1,316 Callowhill Street. He entered the house and made the acquaintance of Mr. Perry, a tall, dark, bony man, to whom he explained the merits of his invention. Perry listened with interest, and asked for a model. In the meantime he suggested that Smith should do some carpenter’s work for him in the house. Smith agreed, and on August 22, while at work there saw a man enter the house and go up with Perry to a room on the second story.

A few days later Smith called at Callowhill Street to ask Perry about the sale of the patent. He waited half an hour in the shop below, called out to Perry who, he thought, might be in the rooms above, received no answer and went away. Next day, September 4, Smith returned, found the place just as he had left it the day before; called Perry again, but again got no answer. Surprised, he went upstairs, and in the back room of the second story the morning sunshine, streaming through the window, showed him the dead body of a man, his face charred beyond recognition, lying with his feet to the window and his head to the door. There was evidence of some sort of explosion: a broken bottle that had contained an inflammable substance, a broken pipe filled with tobacco, and a burnt match lay by the side of the body.

The general appearance of the dead man answered to that of B. F. Perry. A medical examination of the body showed that death had been sudden, that there had been paralysis of the involuntary muscles, and that the stomach, besides showing symptoms of alcoholic irritation, emitted a strong odour of chloroform. An inquest was held, and a verdict returned that B. F. Perry had died of congestion of the lungs caused by the inhalation of flame or chloroform. After lying in the mortuary for eleven days the body was buried.

In the meantime the Philadelphia branch of the Fidelity Mutual Life Association had received a letter from one Jephtha D. Howe, an attorney at St. Louis, stating that the deceased B. F. Perry was Benjamin F. Pitezel of that city, who had been insured in their office for a sum of ten thousand dollars. The insurance had been effected in Chicago in the November of 1893. Mr. Howe proposed to come to Philadelphia with some members of the Pitezel family to identify the remains. Referring to their Chicago branch, the insurance company found that the only person who would seem to have known Pitezel when in that city, was a certain H. H. Holmes, living at Wilmette, Illinois. They got into communication with Mr. Holmes, and forwarded to him a cutting from a newspaper, which stated erroneously that the death of B. F. Perry had taken place in Chicago.

On September 18 they received a letter from Mr. Holmes, in which he offered what assistance he could toward the identification of B. F. Perry as B. F. Pitezel. He gave the name of a dentist in Chicago who would be able to recognise teeth which he had made for Pitezel, and himself furnished a description of the man, especially of a malformation of the knee and a warty growth on the back of the neck by which he could be further identified. Mr. Holmes offered, if his expenses were paid, to come to Chicago to view the body. Two days later he wrote again saying that he had seen by other papers that Perry’s death had taken place in Philadelphia and not in Chicago, and that as he had to be in Baltimore in a day or two, he would run over to Philadelphia and visit the office of the Fidelity Life Association.

On September 20 the assiduous Mr. Holmes called at the office of the Association in Philadelphia, inquired anxiously about the nature and cause of Perry’s death, gave again a description of him and, on learning that Mr. Howe, the attorney from St. Louis, was about to come to Philadelphia to represent the widow, Mrs. Pitezel, and complete the identification, said that he would return to give the company any further help he could in the matter. The following day Mr. Jephtha D. Howe, attorney of St. Louis, arrived in Philadelphia, accompanied by Alice Pitezel, a daughter of the deceased. Howe explained that Pitezel had taken the name of Perry owing to financial difficulties. The company said that they accepted the fact that Perry and Pitezel were one and the same man, but were not convinced that the body was Pitezel’s body. The visit of Holmes was mentioned. Howe said that he did not know Mr. Holmes, but would be willing to meet him. At this moment Holmes arrived at the office. He was introduced to Howe as a stranger, and recognised as a friend by Alice Pitezel, a shy, awkward girl of fourteen or fifteen years of age. It was then arranged that all the parties should meet again next day to identify, if possible, the body, which had been disinterred for that purpose.

The unpleasant duty of identifying the rapidly decomposing remains was greatly curtailed by the readiness of Mr. Holmes. When the party met on the 22nd at the Potter’s Field, where the body had been disinterred and laid out, the doctor present was unable to find the distinctive marks which would show Perry and Pitezel to have been the same man. Holmes at once stepped into the breach, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, put on the rubber gloves, and taking a surgeon’s knife from his pocket, cut off the wart at the back of the neck, showed the injury to the leg, and revealed also a bruised thumb-nail which had been another distinctive mark of Pitezel. The body was then covered up all but the teeth; the girl Alice was brought in, and she said that the teeth appeared to be like those of her father. The insurance company declared themselves satisfied, and handed to Mr. Howe a cheque for 9,175 dollars, and to Mr. Holmes ten dollars for his expenses. Smith, the carpenter, had been present at the proceedings at the Potter’s Field. For a moment he thought he detected a likeness in Mr. Holmes to the man who had visited Perry at Callowhill Street on August 22 and gone upstairs with him, but he did not feel sure enough of the fact to make any mention of it.

In the prison at St. Louis there languished in the year 1894 one Marion Hedgspeth, serving a sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment for an audacious train robbery. On the night of November 30, 1891, the “‘Friscow express from St. Louis had been boarded by four ruffians, the express car blown open with dynamite, and 10,000 dollars carried off. Hedgspeth and another man were tried for the robbery, and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. On October 9, 1894, Hegspeth{sic} made a statement to the Governor of the St. Louis prison, which he said he wished to be communicated to the Fidelity Mutual Life Association. In the previous July Hedgspeth said that he had met in the prison a man of the name of H. M. Howard, who was charged with fraud, but had been released on bail later in the month. While in prison Howard told Hedgspeth that he had devised a scheme for swindling an insurance company of 10,000 dollars, and promised Hedgspeth that, if he would recommend him a lawyer suitable for such an enterprise, he should have 500 dollars as his share of the proceeds. Hedgspeth recommended Jephtha D. Howe. The latter entered with enthusiasm into the scheme, and told Hedgspeth that he thought Mr. Howard “one of the smoothest and slickest” men he had ever known. A corpse was to be found answering to Pitezel’s description, and to be so treated as to appear to have been the victim of an accidental explosion, while Pitezel himself would disappear to Germany. From Howe Hedgspeth learnt that the swindle had been carried out successfully, but he had never received from Howard the 500 dollars promised him. Consequently, he had but little compunction in divulging the plot to the authorities.

It was realised at once that H. M. Howard and H. H. Holmes were the same person, and that Jephtha D. Howe and Mr. Holmes were not the strangers to each other that they had affected to be when they met in Philadelphia. Though somewhat doubtful of the truth of Hedgspeth’s statement, the insurance company decided to set Pinkerton’s detectives on the track of Mr. H. H. Holmes. After more than a month’s search he was traced to his father’s house at Gilmanton, N. H., and arrested in Boston on November 17.

Inquiry showed that, early in 1894, Holmes and Pitezel had acquired some real property at Fort Worth in Texas and commenced building operations, but had soon after left Texas under a cloud, arising from the theft of a horse and other dubious transactions.

Holmes had obtained the property at Fort Worth from a Miss Minnie Williams, and transferred it to Pitezel. Pitezel was a drunken “crook,” of mean intelligence, a mesmeric subject entirely under the influence of Holmes, who claimed to have considerable hypnotic powers. Pitezel had a wife living at St. Louis and five children, three girls–Dessie, Alice, and Nellie–a boy, Howard, and a baby in arms. At the time of Holmes’ arrest Mrs. Pitezel, with her eldest daughter, Dessie, and her little baby, was living at a house rented by Holmes at Burlington, Vermont. She also was arrested on a charge of complicity in the insurance fraud and brought to Boston.

Two days after his arrest Holmes, who dreaded being sent back to Texas on a charge of horse-stealing, for which in that State the punishment is apt to be rough and ready, made a statement to the police, in which he acknowledged the fraud practised by him and Pitezel on the insurance company. The body substituted for Pitezel had been obtained, said Holmes, from a doctor in New York, packed in a trunk and sent to Philadelphia, but he declined for the present to give the doctor’s name. Pitezel, he said, had gone with three of his children–Alice, Nellie and Howard–to South America. This fact, however, Holmes had not communicated to Mrs. Pitezel. When she arrived at Boston, the poor woman was in great distress of mind. Questioned by the officers, she attempted to deny any complicity in the fraud, but her real anxiety was to get news of her husband and her three children. Alice she had not seen since the girl had gone to Philadelphia to identify the supposed remains of her father. Shortly after this Holmes had come to Mrs. Pitezel at St. Louis, and taken away Nellie and Howard to join Alice, who, he said, was in the care of a widow lady at Ovington, Kentucky. Since then Mrs. Pitezel had seen nothing of the children or her husband. At Holmes’ direction she had gone to Detroit, Toronto, Ogdensberg and, lastly, to Burlington in the hope of meeting either Pitezel or the children, but in vain. She believed that her husband had deserted her; her only desire was to recover her children.

On November 20 Holmes and Mrs. Pitezel were transferred from Boston to Philadelphia, and there, along with Benjamin Pitezel and Jephtha D. Howe, were charged with defrauding the Fidelity Life Association of 10,000 dollars. Soon after his arrival in Philadelphia Holmes, who was never averse to talking, was asked by an inspector of the insurance company who it was that had helped him to double up the body sent from New York and pack it into the trunk. He replied that he had done it alone, having learned the trick when studying medicine in Michigan. The inspector recollected that the body when removed from Callowhill Street had been straight and rigid. He asked Holmes what trick he had learnt in the course of his medical studies by which it was possible to re-stiffen a body once the rigor mortis had been broken. To this Holmes made no reply. But he realised his mistake, and a few weeks later volunteered a second statement. He now said that Pitezel, in a fit of depression, aggravated by his drinking habits, had committed suicide on the third story of the house in Callowhill Street. There Holmes had found his body,carried it down on to the floor below, and arranged it in the manner agreed upon for deceiving the insurance company. Pitezel, he said, had taken his life by lying on the floor and allowing chloroform to run slowly into his mouth through a rubber tube placed on a chair. The three children, Holmes now stated, had gone to England with a friend of his, Miss Minnie Williams.

Miss Minnie Williams was the lady, from whom Holmes was said to have acquired the property in Texas which he and Pitezel had set about developing. There was quite a tragedy, according to Holmes, connected with the life of Miss Williams. She had come to Holmes in 1893, as secretary, at a drug store which he was then keeping in Chicago. Their relations had become more intimate, and later in the year Miss Williams wrote to her sister, Nannie, saying that she was going to be married, and inviting her to the wedding. Nannie arrived, but unfortunately a violent quarrel broke out between the two sisters, and Holmes came home to find that Minnie in her rage had killed her sister. He had helped her out of the trouble by dropping Nannie’s body into the Chicago lake. After such a distressing occurrence Miss Williams was only too glad of the opportunity of leaving America with the Pitezel children. In the meantime Holmes, under the name of Bond, and Pitezel, under that of Lyman, had proceeded to deal with Miss Williams’ property in Texas.

For women Holmes would always appear to have possessed some power of attraction, a power of which he availed himself generously. Holmes, whose real name was Herman W. Mudgett, was thirty-four years of age at the time of his arrest. As a boy he had spent his life farming in Vermont, after which he had taken up medicine and acquired some kind of medical degree. In the course of his training Holmes and a fellow student, finding a body that bore a striking resemblance to the latter; obtained 1,000 dollars from an insurance company by a fraud similar to that in which Holmes had engaged subsequently with Pitezel. After spending some time on the staff of a lunatic asylum in Pennsylvania, Holmes set up as a druggist in Chicago. His affairs in this city prospered, and he was enabled to erect, at the corner of Wallace and Sixty-Third Streets, the four-storied building known later as “Holmes Castle.” It was a singular structure. The lower part consisted of a shop and offices. Holmes occupied the second floor, and had a laboratory on the third. In his office was a vault, air proof and sound proof. In the bathroom a trap-door, covered by a rug, opened on to a secret staircase leading down to the cellar, and a similar staircase connected the cellar with the laboratory. In the cellar was a large grate. To this building Miss Minnie Williams had invited her sister to come for her wedding with Holmes, and it was in this building, according to Holmes, that the tragedy of Nannie’s untimely death occurred.


“Holmes Castle”

In hoping to become Holmes’ wife, Miss Minnie Williams was not to enjoy an exclusive privilege. At the time of his arrest Holmes had three wives, each ignorant of the others’ existence. He had married the first in 1878, under the name of Mudgett, and was visiting her at Burlington, Vermont, when the Pinkerton detectives first got on his track. The second he had married at Chicago, under the name of Howard, and the third at Denver as recently as January, 1894, under the name of Holmes. The third Mrs. Holmes had been with him when he came to Philadelphia to identify Pitezel’s body. The appearance of Holmes was commonplace, but he was a man of plausible and ingratiating address, apparent candour, and able in case of necessity to “let loose,” as he phrased it, “the fount of emotion.”

The year 1895 opened to find the much enduring Holmes still a prisoner in Philadelphia. The authorities seemed in no haste to indict him for fraud; their interest was concentrated rather in endeavouring to find the whereabouts of Miss Williams and her children, and of one Edward Hatch, whom Holmes had described as helping him in arranging for their departure. The “great humiliation” of being a prisoner was very distressing to Holmes.

“I only know the sky has lost its blue,
The days are weary and the night is drear.”

These struck him as two beautiful lines very appropriate to his situation. He made a New Year’s resolve to give up meat during his close confinement. The visits of his third wife brought him some comfort. He was “agreeably surprised” to find that, as an unconvicted prisoner, he could order in his own meals and receive newspapers and periodicals. But he was hurt at an unfriendly suggestion on the part of the authorities that Pitezel had not died by his own hand, and that Edward Hatch was but a figment of his rich imagination. He would like to have been released on bail, but in the same unfriendly spirit was informed that, if he were, he would be detained on a charge of murder. And so the months dragged on. Holmes, studious, patient, injured, the authorities puzzled, suspicions, baffled — still no news of Miss Williams or the three children. It was not until June 3 that Holmes was put on his trial for fraud, and the following day pleaded guilty. Sentence was postponed.

The same day Holmes was sent for to the office of the District Attorney, who thus addressed him: “It is strongly suspected, Holmes, that you have not only murdered Pitezel, but that you have killed the children. The best way to remove this suspicion is to produce the children at once. Now, where are they?” Unfriendly as was this approach, Holmes met it calmly, reiterated his previous statement that the children had gone with Miss Williams to England, and gave her address in London, 80 Veder or Vadar Street, where, he said, Miss Williams had opened a massage establishment. He offered to draw up and insert a cipher advertisement in the New York Herald, by means of which, he said, Miss Williams and he had agreed to communicate, and almost tearfully he added, “Why should I kill innocent children?”

Asked to give the name of any person who had seen Miss Williams and the children in the course of their journeyings in America, he resented the disbelief implied in such a question, and strong was his manly indignation when one of the gentlemen present expressed his opinion that the story was a lie from beginning to end. This rude estimate of Holmes’ veracity was, however, in some degree confirmed when a cipher advertisement published in the New York Herald according to Holmes’ directions, produced no reply from Miss Williams, and inquiry showed that no such street as Veder or Vadar Street was to be found in London.

In spite of these disappointments, Holmes’ quiet confidence in his own good faith continued unshaken. When the hapless Mrs. Pitezel was released, he wrote her a long letter. “Knowing me as you do,” he said, “can you imagine me killing little and innocent children, especially without any motive?” But even Mrs. Pitezel was not wholly reassured. She recollected how Holmes had taken her just before his arrest to a house he had rented at Burlington, Vermont, how he had written asking her to carry a package of nitro-glycerine from the bottom to the top of the house, and how one day she had found him busily removing the boards in the cellar.

The District Attorney and the Insurance Company were not in agreement as to the fate of the Pitezel children. The former still inclined to the hope and belief that they were in England with Miss Williams, but the insurance company took a more sinister view. No trace of them existed except a tin box found among Holmes’ effects, containing letters they had written to their mother and grandparents from Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Detroit, which had been given to Holmes to dispatch but had never reached their destination. The box contained letters from Mrs. Pitezel to her children, which Holmes had presumably intercepted.

It was decided to make a final attempt to resolve all doubts by sending an experienced detective over the route taken by the children in America. He was to make exhaustive inquiries in each city with a view to tracing the visits of Holmes or the three children. For this purpose a detective of the name of Geyer was chosen. The record of his search is a remarkable story of patient and persistent investigation.

Alice Pitezel had not seen her mother since she had gone with Holmes to identify her father’s remains in Philadelphia. From there Holmes had taken her to Indianapolis. In the meantime he had visited Mrs. Pitezel at St. Louis, and taken away with him the girl, Nellie, and the boy, Howard, alleging as his reason for doing so that they and Alice were to join their father, whose temporary effacement was necessary to carry out successfully the fraud on the insurance company, to which Mrs. Pitezel had been from the first an unwilling party. Holmes, Nellie and Howard had joined Alice at Indianapolis, and from there all four were believed to have gone to Cincinnati. It was here, accordingly, on June 27, 1895, that Geyer commenced his search.

After calling at a number of hotels, Geyer found that on Friday, September 28, 1894, a man, giving the name of Alexander E. Cook, and three children had stayed at a hotel called the Atlantic House. Geyer recollected that Holmes, when later on he had sent Mrs. Pitezel to the house in Burlington, had described her as Mrs. A. E. Cook and, though not positive, the hotel clerk thought that he recognised in the photographs of Holmes and he three children, which Geyer showed him, the four visitors to the hotel.

They had left the Atlantic House the next day, and on that same day, the 29th, Geyer found that Mr. A. E. Cook and three children had registered at the Bristol Hotel, where they had stayed until Sunday the 30th.

Knowing Holmes’ habit of renting houses, Geyer did not confine his enquiries to the hotels. He visited a number of estate agents and learnt that a man and a boy, identified as Holmes and Howard Pitezel, had occupied a house No. 305 Poplar Street. The man had given the name of A. C. Hayes. He had taken the house on Friday the 28th, and on the 29th had driven up to it with the boy in a furniture wagon. A curious neighbour, interested in the advent of a newcomer, saw the wagon arrive, and was somewhat astonished to observe that the only furniture taken into the house was a large iron cylinder stove. She was still further surprised when, on the following day, Mr. Hayes told her that he was not going after all to occupy the house, and made her a present of the cylinder stove.

From Cincinnati Geyer went to Indianapolis. Here inquiry showed that on September 30 three children had been brought by a man identified as Holmes to the Hotel English, and registered in the name of Canning. This was the maiden name of Mrs. Pitezel. The children had stayed at the hotel one night. After that Geyer seemed to lose track of them until he was reminded of a hotel then closed, called the Circle House. With some difficulty he got a sight of the books of the hotel, and found that the three Canning children had arrived there on October 1 and stayed until the 10th. From the former proprietor of the hotel he learnt that Holmes had described himself as the children’s uncle, and had said that Howard was a bad boy, whom he was trying to place in some institution. The children seldom went out; they would sit in their room drawing or writing, often they were found crying; they seemed homesick and unhappy.

There are letters of the children written from Indianapolis to their mothers, letters found in Holmes’ possession, which had never reached her. In these letters they ask their mother why she does not write to them. She had written, but her letters were in Holmes’ possession. Alice writes that she is reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She has read so much that her eyes hurt; they have bought a crystal pen for five cents which gives them some amusement; they had been to the Zoo in Cincinnati the Sunday before: “I expect this Sunday will pass away slower than I don’t know–Howard is two (sic) dirty to be seen out on the street to-day.” Sometimes they go and watch a man who paints “genuine oil paintings” in a shoe store, which are given away with every dollar purchase of shoes–“he can paint a picture in one and a half minutes, ain’t that quick!” Howard was getting a little troublesome. “I don’t like to tell you,” writes Alice, “but you ask me, so I will have to. Howard won’t mind me at all. He wanted a book and I got `Life of General Sheridan,’ and it is awful nice, but now he don’t read it at all hardly.” Poor Howard! One morning, says Alice, Mr. Holmes told him to stay in and wait for him, as he was coming to take him out, but Howard was disobedient, and when Mr. Holmes arrived he had gone out. Better for Howard had he never returned! “We have written two or three letters to you,” Alice tells her mother, “and I guess you will begin to get them now. She will not get them. Mr. Holmes is so very particular that the insurance company shall get no clue to the whereabouts of any member of the Pitezel family.

Geyer knew that from Indianapolis Holmes had gone to Detroit. He ascertained that two girls, “Etta and Nellie Canning,” had registered on October 12 at the New Western Hotel in that city, and from there had moved on the 15th to a boarding-house in Congress Street. From Detroit Alice had written to her grandparents. It was cold and wet, she wrote; she and Etta had colds and chapped hands: “We have to stay in all the time. All that Nell and I can do is to draw, and I get so tired sitting that I could get up and fly almost. I wish I could see you all. I am getting so homesick that I don’t know what to do. I suppose Wharton (their baby brother) walks by this time, don’t he? I would like to have him here, he would pass away the time a good deal.” As a fact little Wharton, his mother and sister Dessie, were at this very moment in Detroit, within ten minutes’ walk of the hotel at which Holmes had registered “Etta and Nellie Canning.”

On October 14 there had arrived in that city a weary, anxious-looking woman, with a girl and a little baby. They took a room at Geis’s Hotel, registering as Mrs. Adams and daughter. Mrs. Adams seemed in great distress of mind, and never left her room.

The housekeeper, being shown their photographs, identified the woman and the girl as Mrs. Pitezel and her eldest daughter Dessie. As the same time there had been staying at another hotel in Detroit a Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, whose photographs showed them to be the Mr. Holmes in question and his third wife. These three parties–the two children, Mrs. Pitezel and her baby, and the third Mrs. Holmes–were all ignorant of each other’s presence in Detroit; and under the secret guidance of Mr. Holmes the three parties (still unaware of their proximity to each other, left Detroit for Canada, arriving in Toronto on or about October 18, and registering at three separate hotels. The only one who had not to all appearances reached Toronto was the boy Howard.

In Toronto “Alice and Nellie Canning” stayed at the Albion Hotel.

They arrived there on October 19, and left on the 25th. During their stay a man, identified as Holmes, had called every morning for the two children, and taken them out; but they had come back alone, usually in time for supper. On the 25th he had called and taken them out, but they had not returned to supper. After that date Geyer could find no trace of them. Bearing in mind Holmes’ custom of renting houses, he compiled a list of all the house agents in Toronto, and laboriously applied to each one for information. The process was a slow one, and the result seemed likely to be disappointing.

To aid his search Geyer decided to call in the assistance of the Press. The newspapers readily published long accounts of the case and portraits of Holmes and the children. At last, after eight days of patient and untiring investigation, after following up more than one false clue, Geyer received a report that there was a house–No. 16 St. Vincent Street–which had been rented in the previous October by a man answering to the description of Holmes. The information came from an old Scottish gentleman living next door. Geyer hastened to see him. The old gentleman said that the man who had occupied No. 16 in October had told him that he had taken the house for his widowed sister, and he recognised the photograph of Alice Pitezel as one of the two girls accompanying him. The only furniture the man had taken into the house was a bed, a mattress and a trunk. During his stay at No. 16 this man had called on his neighbour about four o’clock one afternoon and borrowed a spade, saying that he wanted to dig a place in the cellar where his widowed sister could keep potatoes; he had returned the spade the following morning. The lady to whom the house belonged recognised Holmes’ portrait as that of the man to whom she had let No. 16.

At last Geyer seemed to be on the right track. He hurried back to St. Vincent Street, borrowed from the old gentleman at No. 18 the very spade which he had lent to Holmes in the previous October, and got the permission of the present occupier of No. 16 to make a search. In the centre of the kitchen Geyer found a trap-door leading down into a small cellar. In one corner of the cellar he saw that the earth had been recently dug up. With the help of the spade the loose earth was removed, and at a depth of some three feet, in a state of advanced decomposition, lay the remains of what appeared to be two children. A little toy wooden egg with a snake inside it, belonging to the Pitezel children, had been found by the tenant who had taken the house after Holmes; a later tenant had found stuffed into the chimney, but not burnt, some clothing that answered the description of that worn by Alice and Etta Pitezel; and by the teeth and hair of the two corpses Mrs. Pitezel was able to identify them as those of her two daughters. The very day that Alice and Etta had met their deaths at St. Vincent Street, their mother had been staying near them at a hotel in the same city, and later on the same day Holmes had persuaded her to leave Toronto for Ogdensburg. He said that they were being watched by detectives, and so it would be impossible for her husband to come to see her there.

But the problem was not yet wholly solved. What had become of Howard? So far Geyer’s search had shown that Holmes had rented three houses, one in Cincinnati, one in Detroit, and one in Toronto. Howard had been with his sisters at the hotels in Indianapolis, and in Detroit the house agents had said that, when Holmes had rented a house there, he had been accompanied by a boy. Yet an exhaustive search of that house had revealed no trace of him. Geyer returned to Detroit and again questioned the house agents; on being pressed their recollection of the boy who had accompanied Holmes seemed very vague and uncertain. This served only to justify a conclusion at which Geyer had already arrived, that Howard had never reached Detroit, but had disappeared in Indianapolis. Alice’s letters, written from there, had described how Holmes had wanted to take Howard out one day and how the boy had refused to stay in and wait for him. In the same way Holmes had called for the two girls at the Albion Hotel in Toronto on October 25 and taken them out with him, after which they had never been seen alive except by the old gentleman at No. 18 St. Vincent Street.

If Geyer could discover that Holmes had not departed in Indianapolis from his usual custom of renting houses, he might be on the high way to solving the mystery of Howard’s fate. Accordingly he returned to Indianapolis.

In the meantime, Holmes, in his prison at Philadelphia, learnt of the discovery at Toronto. “On the morning of the 16th of July,” he writes in his journal, “my newspaper was delivered to me about 8.30 a.m., and I had hardly opened it before I saw in large headlines the announcement of the finding of the children in Toronto. For the moment it seemed so impossible that I was inclined to think it was one of the frequent newspaper excitements that had attended the earlier part of the case, but, in attempting to gain some accurate comprehension of what was stated in the article, I became convinced that at least certain bodies had been found there, and upon comparing the date when the house was hired I knew it to be the same as when the children had been in Toronto; and thus being forced to realise the awfulness of what had probably happened, I gave up trying to read the article, and saw instead the two little faces as they had looked when I hurriedly left them–felt the innocent child’s kiss so timidly given, and heard again their earnest words of farewell, and realised that I had received another burden to carry to my grave with me, equal, if not worse, than the horrors of Nannie Williams’ death.”

Questioned by the district attorney, Holmes met this fresh evidence by evoking once again the mythical Edward Hatch and suggesting that Miss Minnie Williams, in a “hellish wish for vengeance” because of Holmes’ fancied desertion, and in order to make it appear probable that he, and not she, had murdered her sister, had prompted Hatch to commit the horrid deed. Holmes asked to be allowed to go to Toronto that he might collect any evidence which he could find there in his favour. The district attorney refused his request; he had determined to try Holmes in Philadelphia. “What more could, be said?” writes Holmes. Indeed, under the circumstances, and in the unaccountable absence of Edward Hatch and Minnie Williams, there was little more to be said.

Detective Geyer reopened his search in Indianapolis by obtaining a list of advertisements of houses to let in the city in 1894. Nine hundred of these were followed up in vain. He then turned his attention to the small towns lying around Indianapolis with no happier result. Geyer wrote in something of despair to his superiors: “By Monday we will have searched every outlying town except Irvington. After Irvington, I scarcely know where we shall go.” Thither he went on August 27, exactly two months from the day on which his quest had begun. As he entered the town he noticed the advertisement of an estate agent. He called at the office and found a “pleasant-faced old gentleman,” who greeted him amiably. Once again Geyer opened his now soiled and ragged packet of photographs, and asked the gentleman if in October, 1894, he had let a house to a man who said that he wanted one for a widowed sister. He showed him the portrait of Holmes.

The old man put on his glasses and looked at the photograph for some time. Yes, he said, he did remember that he had given the keys of a cottage in October, 1894, to a man of Holmes’ appearance, and he recollected the man the more distinctly for the uncivil abruptness with which he had asked for the keys; “I felt,” he said, “he should have had more respect for my grey hairs.”

From the old gentleman’s office Geyer hastened to the cottage, and made at once for the cellar. There he could find no sign of recent disturbance. But beneath the floor of a piazza adjoining the house he found the remains of a trunk, answering to the description of that which the Pitezel children had had with them, and in an outhouse he discovered the inevitable stove, Holmes’ one indispensable piece of furniture. It was stained with blood on the top. A neighbour had seen Holmes in the same October drive up to the house in the furniture wagon accompanied by a boy, and later in the day Holmes had asked him to come over to the cottage and help him to put up a stove. The neighbour asked him why he did not use gas; Holmes replied that he did not think gas was healthy for children. While the two men were putting up the stove, the little boy stood by and watched them. After further search there were discovered in the cellar chimney some bones, teeth, a pelvis and the baked remains of a stomach, liver and spleen.

Medical examination showed them to be the remains of a child between seven and ten years of age. A spinning top, a scarf-pin, a pair of shoes and some articles of clothing that had belonged to the little Pitezels, had been found in the house at different times, and were handed over to Geyer.

His search was ended. On September 1 he returned to Philadelphia.

Holmes was put on his trial on October 28, 1895, before the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Philadelphia, charged with the murder of Benjamin Pitezel. In the course of the trial the district attorney offered to put in evidence showing that Holmes had also murdered the three children of Pitezel, contending that such evidence was admissible on the ground that the murders of the children and their father were parts of the same transaction. The judge refused to admit the evidence, though expressing a doubt as to its inadmissibility. The defence did not dispute the identity of the body found in Callowhill Street, but contended that Pitezel had committed suicide. The medical evidence negatived such a theory. The position of the body, its condition when discovered, were entirely inconsistent with self-destruction, and the absence of irritation in the stomach showed that the chloroform found there must have been poured into it after death. In all probability, Holmes had chloroformed Pitezel when he was drunk or asleep. He had taken the chloroform to Callowhill Street as a proposed ingredient in a solution for cleaning clothes, which he and Pitezel were to patent. It was no doubt with the help of the same drug that he had done to death the little children, and failing the nitro-glycerine, with that drug he had intended to put Mrs. Pitezel and her two remaining children out of the way at the house in Burlington; for after his trial there was found there, hidden away in the cellar, a bottle containing eight or ten ounces of chloroform.

Though assisted by counsel, Holmes took an active part in his defence. He betrayed no feeling at the sight of Mrs. Pitezel, the greater part of whose family he had destroyed, but the appearance of his third wife as a witness he made an opportunity for “letting loose the fount of emotion,” taking care to inform his counsel beforehand that he intended to perform this touching feat. He was convicted and sentenced to death on November 2.

Previous to the trial of Holmes the police had made an exhaustive investigation of the mysterious building in Chicago known as “Holmes’ Castle.” The result was sufficiently sinister. In the stove in the cellar charred human bones were found, and in the middle of the room stood a large dissecting table stained with blood. On digging up the cellar floor some human ribs, sections of vertebrae and teeth were discovered buried in quicklime, and in other parts of the “castle” the police found more charred bones, some metal buttons, a trunk, and a piece of a watch chain.

The trunk and piece of watch chain were identified as having belonged to Miss Minnie Williams.

Inquiry showed that Miss Williams had entered Holmes’ employment as a typist in 1893, and had lived with him at the castle. In the latter part of the year she had invited her sister, Nannie, to be present at her wedding with Holmes. Nannie had come to Chicago for that purpose, and since then the two sisters had never been seen alive. In February in the following year Pitezel, under the name of Lyman, had deposited at Fort Worth, Texas, a deed according to which a man named Bond had transferred to him property in that city which had belonged to Miss Williams, and shortly after, Holmes, under the name of Pratt, joined him at Fort Worth, whereupon the two commenced building on Miss Williams’ land.

Other mysterious cases besides those of the Williams sisters revealed the Bluebeard-like character of this latterday castle of Mr. Holmes. In 1887 a man of the name of Connor entered Holmes’ employment. He brought with him to the castle a handsome, intelligent wife and a little girl of eight or nine years of age.

After a short time Connor quarrelled with his wife and went away, leaving Mrs. Connor and the little girl with Holmes. After 1892 Mrs. Connor and her daughter had disappeared, but in August, 1895, the police found in the castle some clothes identified as theirs, and the janitor, Quinlan, admitted having seen the dead body of Mrs. Connor in the castle. Holmes, questioned in his prison in Philadelphia, said that Mrs. Connor had died under an operation, but that he did not know what had become of the little girl.

In the year of Mrs. Connor’s disappearance, a typist named Emily Cigrand, who had been employed in a hospital in which Benjamin Pitezel had been a patient, was recommended by the latter to Holmes. She entered his employment, and she and Holmes soon became intimate, passing as “Mr. and Mrs. Gordon.” Emily Cigrand had been in the habit of writing regularly to her parents in Indiana, but after December 6, 1892, they had never heard from her again, nor could any further trace of her be found.

A man who worked for Holmes as a handy man at the castle stated to the police that in 1892 Holmes had given him a skeleton of a man to mount, and in January, 1893, showed him in the laboratory another male skeleton with some flesh still on it, which also he asked him to mount. As there was a set of surgical instruments in the laboratory and also a tank filled with a fluid preparation for removing flesh, the handy man thought that Holmes was engaged in some kind of surgical work.

About a month before his execution, when Holmes’ appeals from his sentence had failed and death appeared imminent, he sold to the newspapers for 7,500 dollars a confession in which he claimed to have committed twenty-seven murders in the course of his career. The day after it appeared he declared the whole confession to be a “fake.” He was tired, he said, of being accused by the newspapers of having committed every mysterious murder that had occurred during the last ten years. When it was pointed out to him that the account given in his confession of the murder of the Pitezel children was clearly untrue, he replied, “Of course, it is not true, but the newspapers wanted a sensation and they have got it.” The confession was certainly sensational enough to satisfy the most exacting of penny-a-liners, and a lasting tribute to Holmes’ undoubted power of extravagant romancing.

According to his story, some of his twenty-seven victims had met their death by poison, some by more violent methods, some had died a lingering death in the air-tight and sound-proof vault of the castle. Most of these he mentioned by name, but some of these were proved afterwards to be alive. Holmes had actually perpetrated, in all probability, about ten murders. But, given further time and opportunity, there is no reason why this peripatetic assassin should not have attained to the considerable figure with which he credited himself in his bogus confession.

Holmes was executed in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896. He seemed to meet his fate with indifference.

The motive of Holmes in murdering Pitezel and three of his children and in planning to murder his wife and remaining children, originated in all probability in a quarrel that occurred between Pitezel and himself in the July of 1894. Pitezel had tired apparently of Holmes and his doings, and wanted to break off the connection. But he must have known enough of Holmes’ past to make him a dangerous enemy. It was Pitezel who had introduced to Holmes Emily Cigrand, the typist, who had disappeared so mysteriously in the castle; Pitezel had been his partner in the fraudulent appropriation of Miss Minnie Williams’ property in Texas; it is more than likely, therefore, that Pitezel knew something of the fate of Miss Williams and her sister. By reviving, with Pitezel’s help, his old plan for defrauding insurance companies, Holmes saw the opportunity of making 10,000 dollars, which he needed sorely, and at the same time removing his inconvenient and now lukewarm associate. Having killed Pitezel and received the insurance money, Holmes appropriated to his own use the greater part of the 10,000 dollars, giving Mrs. Pitezel in return for her share of the plunder a bogus bill for 5,000 dollars. Having robbed Mrs. Pitezel of both her husband and her money, to this thoroughgoing criminal there seemed only one satisfactory way of escaping detection, and that was to exterminate her and the whole of her family.

Had Holmes not confided his scheme of the insurance fraud to Hedgspeth in St. Louis prison and then broken faith with him, there is no reason why the fraud should ever have been discovered. The subsequent murders had been so cunningly contrived that, had the Insurance Company not put the Pinkerton detectives on his track, Holmes would in all probability have ended by successfully disposing of Mrs. Pitezel, Dessie, and the baby at the house in Burlington, Vermont, and the entire Pitezel family would have disappeared as completely as his other victims.

Holmes admitted afterwards that his one mistake had been his confiding to Hedgspeth his plans for defrauding an insurance company–a mistake, the unfortunate results of which might have been avoided, if he had kept faith with the train robber and given him the 500 dollars which he had promised.

The case of Holmes illustrates the practical as well as the purely ethical value of “honour among thieves,” and shows how a comparatively insignificant misdeed may ruin a great and comprehensive plan of crime. To dare to attempt the extermination of a family of seven persons, and to succeed so nearly in effecting it, could be the work of no tyro, no beginner like J. B. Troppmann. It was the act of one who having already succeeded in putting out of the way a number of other persons undetected, might well and justifiably believe that he was born for greater and more compendious achievements in robbery and murder than any who had gone before him. One can almost subscribe to America’s claim that Holmes is the “greatest criminal” of a century boasting no mean record in such persons.

In the remarkable character of his achievements as an assassin we are apt to lose sight of Holmes’ singular skill and daring as a liar and a bigamist. As an instance of the former may be cited his audacious explanation to his family, when they heard of his having married a second time. He said that he had met with a serious accident to his head, and that when he left the hospital, found that he had entirely lost his memory; that, while in this state of oblivion, he had married again and then, when his memory returned, realised to his horror his unfortunate position. Plausibility would seem to have been one of Holmes’ most useful gifts; men and women alike — particularly the latter — he seems to have deceived with ease. His appearance was commonplace, in no way suggesting the conventional criminal, his manner courteous, ingratiating and seemingly candid, and like so many scoundrels, he could play consummately the man of sentiment.

The weak spot in Holmes’ armour as an enemy of society was a dangerous tendency to loquacity, the defect no doubt of his qualities of plausible and insinuating address and ever ready mendacity.

Books about H.H. Holmes

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Pennsylvania,Serial Killers,Theft,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1904: Zenon Champoux, French degenerate

Add comment May 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1904, the state of Washington carried out its first execution under the auspices of a new law requiring that hangings be held in that state’s penitentiary in Walla Walla.*

Its subject was French-Canadian laborer Zenon Champoux, and his crime was as flamboyant as his moniker: publicly planting a knife in the forehead of a dance hall girl who did not return his affections.

The first man executed under the auspices of the Evergreen State, we admit, is a milestone that’s a bit on the smaller side.

But we think his name stands out admirably in the annals, especially paired with a characterization like the Seattle Star gave him: French degenerate.

“Zenon Champoux, French Degenerate” — it’s the scoundrel who’s rogering your girl, or else the branding on his designer condoms. On this date in 1904, it was just the guy at the end of his rope.

* Previously, hangings had been conducted by counties, in public. Laws removing them to the auspices of the state and behind the walls of a prison were in vogue at the time.

Washington went on to abolish the death penalty in 1913, only to reinstate it again in 1919.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Sex,USA,Washington

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1677: Seven at Tyburn

3 comments May 4th, 2010 Headsman

Many an hour can be spent enjoying the Old Bailey Online site for the forgotten criminals of a bygone age.

May 4, 1677 takes us to Restoration England for a routine hanging of seven at Tyburn, who all but come to life with just the few words of the Ordinary’s account.

One of the other Four [Margaret Spicer] was Condemned for murthering her Bastard-Childe, which she most unnaturally kill’d and hid in her bed for some days, till the same was discovered by one that came to visit her. As she denied her murthering of it at the Bar, so she persisted in that negative to Master Ordinary and other Ministers since she received Sentence, alleadging that it was Stillborn; or at least, contracted its death as soon as ever it saluted the light, by an accidental fall; However, the Law, to prevent such presences which in all Cases of that kind might be made, obliging the woman immediately after to Cry out, and she failing therein, and as ’tis shrewdly apparent by Circumstance, was the principal Author of its destruction, she was condemned to die, and this day executed at Tyburn according to Sentence.

If you didn’t report your pregnancy, the infanticide presumption went against you. We’ve seen this elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Dine siblings of Enfield got it in the neck for mutilating a girl who had spurned one of them, quite the spiteful little affair down in the servant-quarters.

Three others, as the Crime they suffered for was the first they were known to have committed; so was it so strange and heinous, as searce ever to have been done by any body but themselves: So that we may say, They died Presidents of Punishment, for a Crime unpresidented. These were the two Brothers and Sister of Enfield, who so barbarously mangled Jane King, to whom Robert, one of the Brothers, pretended Love; but after a long acquaintance, being Fellow-Servants together, she refused to have him: whereupon his treacherous Love turned to Hatred and Malice, instigated (as ’tis supposed) chiefly thereunto by this unhappy Sister, with whom and his Brother he lays a Plot to disfigure her; maliciously and enviously designing, that because she would not accept of him, they would render her so deformed, that she her self should not be acceptable to any other person. In pursuance whereof, on the 20 February last about 8 of the clock in the evening, Robert and Jane being only up, and their aged Master in bed, somealls Robert by his name at the back-door, whimmediatley opens; and then comes in the Sister and Brother, the later of whom seizes upon Jane and holds her, while the former barbarous Furcy cuts her Eye so lamentably that she has utterly lost the use of it; mangles her Nose in a dismal manner, insomuch that two bones were taken out of it; her Tongue she flit, and almost cut off both her Lips; and also gave her a wound and two slabs in the Neck, and several slashes on the Arm, Etc. And having dispatch’d this unheard of Cruelty, left her for dead, and went home; who being gone, Robert cries cut Murther and Thieves; and Neighbours coming in, presends to be knock’s down, Etc. but in pleas’d God Jane, after three or four days, recovered herand then declared who had abused her, andully proved the same at the Sessions; whereupon they were all Condemned according to the Statute in that Case made and provided.

Yet did they all persist in the denial of the Fact, after their Condemnation, even to the day of their Death: nor would all Perswasions or Admonitions of several Ministers that came to visit them, get any acknowledgement that they had any hand in it. Though on the Sunday they carried themselves very attentively in the Chappel, and a great part of the Sermon was to perswade the necessity of Confession in order to their Souls health, yet they could not be prevailed upon; only on the Munday Margaret seemed a little unusually troubled, and delared, That she had something lay upon her Conscience, and desired she might speak with a Minister in private; whereupon a Minister was sent for, who took her aside, and hoping then she would have made an ingenuous Discovery, press’d her with all imaginable Arguments, but to no purpose: For she told him, she knew nothing of it; whereupon he as’d her, What it was she said troubled her, and lay upon her Conscience, for which she defired to speak with a Minister by her self: To which,all the answer that he could get was, That she had, when she said so, something in her head, but now she had forgot it.

[Note: lacking access to an original, I’ve erred on the side of caution in tidying up this text from the obviously squirrelly copy at the Old Bailey Online. Hopefully it’s still readable despite dicey scanning and 17th century language.]

This is an interesting case, seemingly prosecuted under the Coventry Act* against deliberate maiming — contra the claim elsewhere in these pages that this legislation did not claim a juridical victim until 1722.

* “It was the first President of Punishment on that most necessary Statute against cutting off Noses, disfiguring and maiming his Majesties Subjects … it was a premeditated act of Malice to render her deform’d and unfit for any bodies.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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

738: Copan king 18-Rabbit (Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil)

2 comments May 3rd, 2010 dogboy

Mayan history has thus far been difficult to examine due to a major communication gap. Much of the Western world’s understanding of its own history comes from the written word, such that the deciphering of ancient scripts is not only a linguistic triumph, but it also pushes aside centuries of debris to expose a new corner of human culture.

It is this evolving ability to crack codes from classic Mesoamerica that has yielded a close approximation of the true name of the man formerly known only as 18-Rabbit: Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil.*

(Alternately, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. The name means “Eighteen Images of K’awiil”; K’awiil was a Mayan divinity.)


Image (c) Matt Stokes of guatemalaholla.blogspot.com and used with permission.

By any name, he was one of the greatest rulers of the Mayan Classical Era, reigning from the Rio Copan Valley in today’s Honduras, near the present border with Guatemala. His life is preserved in several sets of stelae on temples around Copan and describes a man intent on advancing the culture of Copan.

In the city itself, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil greatly contributed to the design of the Great Plaza, which housed one of the great ball courts in the region. More obviously, though, his reign was marked by a drastic sculptural shift away from the angular designs of the Early Classical period and straight into the more complete and rounded designs that persisted through the remainder of the Mayan era.

Reliefs from: the preceding 12th Ruler period (left); and, from 18 Rabbit’s period (right).

In spite of these major cultural moves, little about Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is known directly. However, for the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne — on March 27, 715 AD** — Temple 22 was dedicated to the ruler, with a rare inscription ascribed to the ruler himself etched thereon.

It would be another 23 years before Ruler 13 was, as his conquering neighbor put it, “axed”. In 738, the Quirigua region — now in southeastern Guatemala — was considered part of the Copan empire. The Quirigua are now mostly known only for the size of their sculptures, which eclipse others in the region. But in 738, the Quiriga were mostly known for their fearsome king, Kawak Sky, or K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, occupied the city just 50 km away and executed (or sacrificed) its former ruler.

That move ended a span of Copan dominance in the area and briefly put the Quirigua on top. Strangely, Yopaat was not apparently responsible for overseeing a particularly fruitful Quiriga culture. Almost nothing was built in his honor until after Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s death, after which several monuments to Yopaat’s glory were erected. It has been suggested that Yopaat was a brother or cousin of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, as Kawak Sky’s biography indicates that he both took the throne under Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s authority and executed his predecessor; this suggests that the move was not a full-on coup.

Regardless of their relationship, in the aftermath of the execution, Copan declined rapidly, presumably as their new Quirigua ruler exploited its labor and material resources to build up his own name. As one Copan scribe later lamented, “[There are] no altars, no pyramids, no places.” But the Copan would rise again: Ruler 15, or Smoke Shell, polished off the unfinished Temple 26 and built up its heiroglyphic staircase to highlight the dynastic history of Copan and its connection to its northerly neighbor, Teotihuacan. His son, Yax Pak Chan Yat, would be the last of the 16 rulers of Copan in the Yax K’uk’ Mo’ line.

* Because of his place in the dynastic sequence of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is sometimes referred to simply as Ruler 13.

** Mayan dates are surprisingly easy to nail down once the system is understood. While Europeans moved from Roman to Julian to Gregorian calendars — with the Eastern Orthodox Church and several traditionally Orthodox nations hanging onto the Julian one into the 20th Century — the Mayans had a consistent system that advanced day-to-day and was tied to verifiable events. Hence the ability to date Dec 21, 2012 as the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which began on Aug 11, 3114 BCE.

In a way, the MLC is the precursor to the astronomical system of Julian Dates (which are not the same as the Julian calendar).

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Honduras,Maya civilization,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1960: Caryl Chessman

8 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.

During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.

He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).

The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.

Not, however, of murder.

Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**

This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.

That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.


Via.

A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.

-Caryl Chessman

So Chessman wrote.

Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.

Books by and about Caryl Chessman

And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.

One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.

With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.

Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.

Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)

Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)

Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)

(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)

Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)

The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)

In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.

Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.

Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.

I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.

-Caryl Chessman

* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.

** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.

Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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

2009: Delara Darabi, “Oh mother, I can see the noose”

6 comments May 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date last year, Delara Darabi placed a frantic phone call to her parents from Central Prison in Rasht.

Oh mother, I see the hangman’s noose in front of me. They are going to execute me. Please save me.

A guard snatched the phone away and hung up with a taunt — “We are going to execute your daughter and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

And they did just that, as Darabi’s parents raced in vain to the prison.

Darabi was condemned for killing (with her boyfriend) her father’s cousin, a crime to which she confessed allegedly because, as a 17-year-old, she thought she could protect said boyfriend without risk of execution herself.

That worked out much better for the boyfriend (who is serving a prison sentence) than for Delara.

And by the time she repudiated the confession, the Iranian judiciary wasn’t interested.

As a minor under sentence of death — Iran is virtually the last redoubt of juvenile executions in the world — Darabi’s case attracted global attention; she became a cause celebre with the international exhibition of her artwork under the branding “Prisoner of Color”.

Do you know what the prisoner of colors mean? It means that when I was four, I had broken down my life by colors; at 17, I lost them. I mistook deep Red for blue lapis. Instead of sky blue, I painted gray. I lost the colors and now the only silhouette I see everyday is the [prison] wall. I am Delara Darabi, 20 years of age, accused of murder, sentenced to death; it has been 3 years that I defend myself with colors, shapes and words … These paintings are an oath to an uncommitted crime … would that colors were to bring me back to life again. I send you who have come to see my paintings, greetings from behind these walls.

Some other Darabi works can be seen in this Flickr set or on this YouTube tribute.

Darabi’s execution had been reported as imminent earlier in April 2009, but she won a two-month stay from the Head of the Judiciary on April 19.

The hanging this date shocked her supporters; it was apparently conducted in defiance of that stay, and without any notice to her attorney or her family — other than that hopeless last-minute phone call. Amnesty International denounced the execution as “a cynical move on the part of the authorities to avoid domestic and international protests which might have saved Delara Darabi’s life.”

This news broke first on Twitter at the now-dormant @DelaraDarabi account.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Theft,Women,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , ,

1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

3 comments April 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Scotsman John Dickson was condemned to death (which he immediately suffered) for murdering his father.

“The criminal record,” observes this volume of Scottish crime, “contains neither the particulars of the murder, nor the evidence against the prisoner.”

What is particular to this case is the method of execution: the breaking-wheel, or something very similar to it, a tortuous death used throughout continental Europe but that never caught on in the British Isles.

John Dickson, younger of Belchester, being apprehended, ta’en, and brought to Edinburgh, was put to the knawledge of ane assize for the slaughter of his awn natural father [in July 1588], and also for the lying for the said offence at the process of excommunication. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried—where he lay all that night, and on the morn [was] carried to the gallows of the Burgh-moor, where the rack was set up, and the corpse laid thereupon. (Passage from here or here.)

Dickson’s is the first of only two such “breaking” death sentences, in which the doomed is staked out spread-eagled and has his limbs shattered one by one, documented in Scotland. (The other is that of Robert Weir in 1604; an assassin in 1571 “is said, also” to have suffered such a fate, but actual documentation has been lost.)


Sort of like this. (Source)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland

Tags: , , , , ,

1968: Lin Zhao, martyr poet

7 comments April 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1968, a “rightist” student whose critique of the Cultural Revolution was not blunted by the rigors of imprisonment was informed that her jail sentence had been changed to execution — which was immediately imposed at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport.

Utterly obscure at her death, Lin Zhao’s memory was tended by those closest to her, passed down like samizdat to latterly emerge out of Mao’s shadow.

An impassioned young intellectual at Peking University and a dedicated Communist with an irrepressible sense of justice, Lin Zhao once called Mao the “red star in my heart” and actually supervised the execution of a landlord during the country’s land reform push in the early 1950s.

But she also refused to temper or retract her criticisms of China’s path when the government abruptly reversed its brief flirtation with pluralism.

In 1960, after circulating a petition for fallen Communist (but not orthodox Maoist) Marshal Peng Dehuai, Lin was arrested, and eventually sentenced to a 20-year term.

It is here that the judicious person discovers the error of her ways, and accepts such terms as she can make for herself.

Not Lin Zhao.

Lin kept writing. Poetry, political manifestos, letters to the newspaper — hundreds of thousands of “reactionary” words. When they took away her ink, she opened her veins and wrote in blood.

By the end, official maltreatment and Lin’s own hunger strikes had wasted her away to less than 70 pounds. She was literally plucked from her prison hospital bed on this date by soldiers who drug her (gagged) to a show trial and execution. But like Marshal Peng, she never bent.

“Better to be destroyed,” she told her doctor, “than give up one’s principles.” (He’s quoted in Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.)

Somehow, many of her hematic scribblings (saved by the prison, for possible use against her down the road) were smuggled out to her loved ones.* Somehow, they made their way to filmmaker Hu Jie, who put Lin Zhao back on the cultural map with the banned but well-received 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (or In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul).

This movie can actually be seen in its entirety in 10-minute installments on YouTube as of this writing.

Lin Zhao was posthumously exonerated by a Shanghai court in 1981. Despite Hu Jie’s efforts, she is still little known in her country, or abroad.

Phosphorescent green light never goes out
And lighting up souls every night
Preserving the soul
Letting go the crippled body
Burning into ashes in misfortune
Someday with a red flower on the head
Recognizing the blood stains
Just as copying a bright red flower
Impossible to paint the real color

-One of Lin Zhao’s poems, inscribed on her tomb

* Stanford’s Hoover Institution also holds a collection of Lin Zhao papers.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Shot,Women,Wrongful Executions

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

2010: Zheng Minsheng, child-stabbing doctor

1 comment April 28th, 2010 Headsman

This morning in Nanping, China, former doctor Zheng Minsheng was shot to death for a headline-grabbing knife attack on schoolchildren just five weeks ago.

In a brazen attack as efficient as it was unanticipated, Zheng knifed 13 kids at Nanping City Experimental Elementary School on March 23. Eight of them died.

“The methods used by the defendant Zheng Minsheng were extremely savage, the circumstances of the crime were particularly evil,” the Fujian Province high court said in rejecting his appeal.

The apparent motivation? Being jilted by his girlfriend.

That’s not the sort of trigger calculated to impress Chinese courts that have little sympathy for mental illness claims.

For this shocking crime, justice was swift. But you’d have to question its deterrent effect, since there was yet another high-profile knifing attack on schoolchildren on the very day of Zheng’s execution — part of an “alarming spate of school knifings.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot

Tags: , , , , , ,

1792: Jacob Johan Anckarström, assassin of Gustav III

1 comment April 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1792, Jacob Johan Anckarström lost his right hand and his center head for murdering Gustav III.

Like some other nobles, this officer considered the “theater king” and enlightened despot Gustav III a, well, despot.

Times being what they were, regicide was in order, to usher in an age of constitutional liberalism.

A conspiracy of Swedish nobles surrounded the royal victim at a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, and shot him in the back. Alas for them, the scene was immediately sealed and the attendees unmasked before the gang could get away.

Although in the confusion nobody knew whodunit among those disguised revelers, it was only a matter of time before the discarded murder weapon was identified as Anckarström’s.

(Actually, it was a much longer matter of time before it became a “murder” weapon. The king only succumbed to the infection 13 days later.)

Five were condemned to death, but the four who hadn’t pulled the trigger were commuted to exile instead. Exile for regicide? Maybe that’s making you wonder why they all thought it was such an oppressive regime they all lived under.

Jacob Johan Anckarström could give them the answer. He was said to have met his beheading joyfully, which would only be natural after he’d been flogged in chains in three different parts of the city over the preceding three days.*

For readers of Swedish (or exploiters of online translation), there’s much more about Jacob and his dastardly plot here and here.

Appropriately, given the murder’s stagey venue, the Anckarstrom assassination was great performance art material in the 19th century. Verdi based Un Ballo in Maschera on it, although he’s given the principals a generic love-triangle relationship — and because of mid-19th century censorship, the iteration of it below is set in colonial Boston with “Anckarstrom” sporting the very New England name “Rennato”.

Although this particular plot didn’t achieve the revolutionary thing its authors intended, it didn’t have the opposite effect either. The king’s teenage son Gustav IV Adolf succeeded the throne, with an unsurprising hatred of Jacobinism. But in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars (that also cost Sweden its dominion over Finland), Gustav IV was deposed and a liberal constitution adopted.

* He wasn’t handled with kid gloves in prison, either, but you can take in the scene over the libation of your choice at the present-day cafe that occupies Anckarstrom’s onetime dungeon. The joint is named for another Swedish political martyr, Sten Sture.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Murder,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Sweden,Torture,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts Previous Posts


Calendar

November 2014
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Stuff a stocking with our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck. Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recently Commented

  • Headsman: fixed – thank you. hashtag:...
  • Tony: typo in headline & 1st para: should be South...
  • thidaneng: Practical and workable by Michael Lewis and...
  • buy biotin the: Studies have shown the vitamins prevent...
  • Kiet: He is my hero too. He was able to show to the...