Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1959: Jose Cipriano Rodriguez

Add comment January 17th, 2017 Headsman

UPI photographer Andrew Lopez won the Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of Jose Cipriano Rodriguez, a corporal of the deposed Batista dictatorship, going to his firing squad execution in the bloody first weeks of Cuba’s revolutionary conquest. Rodriguez had been found guilty of two murders by a snap tribunal that same day.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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2014: Dennis McGuire, Ohio botch

Add comment January 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2014, Ohio very clumsily executed Dennis McGuire for raping and stabbing to death an eight-months pregnant woman in 1989.

For no reason better than chance, McGuire‘s was the execution scheduled to arrive when Ohio bowed to the growing scarcity of lethal injection drugs by innovating a new kill-cocktail comprising midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller.

McGuire’s attorneys fought this procedure on the plausible (quite plausible, as we will see) grounds that using an execution as a vehicle for nonconsensual human medical experimentation was liable to end badly.

It did. A Dayton Daily News staff reporter who attended the execution gave the disturbint account

Prison officials say the drugs — a combination never before used in an execution — were delivered at 10:28 a.m.

His daughter cried uncontrollably.

McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.

Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.

“Oh my god,” his daughter [Amber McGuire] said.

“Don’t watch,” [wife] Missie McGuire said.

At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air — a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale — and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.

His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.

(Here’s another (more heavily editorializing) eyewitness account of the event, by McGuire’s priest.)

Predictably, more lawsuits followed, cases that are still working their way through the courts. Just two weeks ago as of this writing, a federal suit filed on behalf of Ohio’s other death row inmates brought a member of Dennis McGuire’s execution team to the stand. Behind an anonymizing cardboard screen, “Team Member No. 10″ characterized the McGuire execution as unlike any of the others he had worked, and said that he “was wondering what was going on” as the prisoner heaved and choked his way to death.

As a result, McGuire’s execution remains as of this writing the most recent execution conducted in one of the largest Republican-dominated states in the U.S. — even though Ohio was setting up in the 2000s as the Texas of the North.

The blockage is sure to be a temporary one. Ohio has announced plans to resume executions in 2017 with its new drug cocktail, plus a backup set of other drugs to reverse the first drugs if things go wrong.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ohio,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China

3 comments January 15th, 2017 Headsman

January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.

The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.

In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.

Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.

Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.

These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,

military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.

This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.

* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Milestones,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Dakota,U.S. Federal,USA

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1973: Lt. Col. Mohamed Amekrane, no asylum

Add comment January 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1973, Morocco shot 11 officers for a regicidal mutiny.

Amekrane (left) with the coup’s leading spirit, Mohamed Oufkir

Their deaths were the consequence of the near-miss bid to bring down Morocco’s King Hassan II by bringing down his airplane, a plot to which Lt. Col. Mohamed Amekrane, the commander of the air base that launched fighters against the king’s convoy, was utterly pivotal. It’s no surprise that he’d be in the way of the royal revenge domestically after this incident; more surprising and controversial was the role the British would play in dooming the man.

As he discovered that the king’s passenger plane had somehow escaped the predations of his F-5s, Amekrane (it’s also sometimes spelled Amokrane) alertly requisitioned a helicopter and fled with another officer to British soil at nearby Gibraltar, where they requested asylum on Aug. 16.

This put Westminster in an awkward situation: repatriate the men to sure execution, or give refuge to the would-be assassins of a friendly head of state.* Still more was it a procedural twilight, where the power of bureaucratic discretion prevailed by declaring the form of the law in ambiguous circumstances.

After a flurry of consultations “at ministerial level” that also weighed “the possibility of repercussions with other governments,” (London Times, Aug. 18, 1972) the Heath government classified the fugitives as refugee illegal aliens and repatriated them within days, lamely explaining that Gibraltar, a small place, didn’t have much room for asylum claimants. And once they were fitted with the “illegal alien” hat it was simple: “they were returned to Morocco because that was the place from which they came.” (the Times, Aug. 19) Application, rejection, and deportation all took place within a mere 15 hours, purposefully too fast for anyone to get wind of what was happening or to mobilize resources in support of the Moroccans.

London’s legal chicanery drew a discomfited response from some other elites as well as members of the public or at least those with a propensity towards letters to the editor in the early 1970s. Parliamentarian Ivor Richard fumed that “there was surely no necessity in international law or in humanity deliberately to have sent them back to what appears to be their deaths.”

The Times would editorialize in that same Aug. 19, 1972 edition against the “haste and informality in the procedure which contradict Britain’s long tradition of care in such cases” — noting the irony that

the absence of an extradition treaty [might have been thought] would make it more difficult for the Moroccan authorities to reach out to fugitive offenders on British soil. In fact it has made it easier for them … because of British ministers’ willingness to use the power to deport aliens whose presence is judged undesirable in such a way as to achieve the result of extradition. And the exercise of that power is not subject to the same safeguards.

Amekrane had no safeguards at all once he was back in Moroccan hands. That November, he was condemned to die along with his companion on the Gibraltar caper Lt. Lyazid Midoaui, plus nine other members of the Moroccan Air Force complicit in the coup attempt; the whole batch was executed together on this date at a prison in Kenitra.

But in Britain his case outlived the fusillade. For the overhasty asylum refusal, Amekrane’s widow filed suit against the UK in a European Commission of Human Rights court, eventually winning a £37,500 settlement.

* The relations between the states in question went beyond mere chumminess: Franco’s Spain was maintaining a blockade against Gibraltar, in consequence of which the imperial outpost was heavily supplied by and from Morocco. The men’s lives were sold, so critics carped, for “lettuces.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibraltar,History,Mass Executions,Morocco,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1830: Agnus Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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2017: Christopher Wilkins, straight talker

Add comment January 11th, 2017 Headsman

Texas today conducted the first U.S. execution of 2017 with the lethal injection of droll drug murderer Christopher Wilkins.

Wilkins wouldn’t quite qualify for our “volunteers” tag and he fired away at his available appeals all the way to the end. But he also went out of his way not to throw up any barriers, legal or psychological, against putting him into the death penalty system. It has been well said that wretches hang that jurymen may dine, but in Wilkins’s case he mouthed friendly reassurances to teary-eyed jurors who had just condemned him to die.

“You’ve got a job to do. You tell the judge ‘get a rope’ or not,” he had said to them during his sentencing hearing, when a few well-chosen syllables might have made his life worth keeping in their eyes. “Look, it is no big deal. It is no big deal.”

There is — was — a disarming want of pretense in the man, “candid to a degree you don’t see” in the rueful words of his defense attorney. He chatted in that hearing openly about his white supremacist tattoos — just prison swag from his recent stint in the federal pen, he said — and his short temper — explicitly discouraging jurors from cutting him state-of-mind slack for his drug habit — and his dim future course in life. Would he ever change?, prosecutors asked him. “I believe it’s a little late,” the 39-year-old answered, justly.

Wilkins had shot Willie Freeman and Mike Silva dead after Freeman tricked him into buying “crack cocaine” that turned out just to be gravel. He’d continued using with Freeman for some weeks after this offense, but Freeman pissed him off by laughing to his face about the con. (Silva just happened to be with them at the time.) As he warned: a short fuse. It transpired that he had also murdered someone in a dispute over a pay phone.

“I know they are bad decisions,” the too-incisive Mr. Wilkins said, again to his jury. “I make them anyway.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA

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1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”

Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,

were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …

The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.

Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.

On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.

John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.

Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.

The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.

Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”

“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.

Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.

By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.

At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.

The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.

As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.

In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.

The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:

The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.

At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices

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1824: John Thurtell, the Radlett murderer

1 comment January 9th, 2017 Headsman

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.

Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)

But these were merely business matters.

When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.

Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.

Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.

Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.

Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.

To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.

Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,

draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.

But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.

As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.

Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.


Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)

Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.

As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.

The foreman of the jury that convicted Thurtell went on to become the Prime Minister.

And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.

There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Athletes,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Pelf,Public Executions

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1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

January 8 is the execution day in 1878 of Argentine folk saint “Gauchito Gil”.

Nobody knows for sure if he really existed, but thousands flock to his sanctuary near Mercedes on this remembrance date while roadside red-flagged shrines throughout Argentina pay him homage all the year round.

If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.

Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.

The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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