Posts filed under 'Capital Punishment'

1943: Marie-Louise Giraud, Vichy abortionist

Add comment July 30th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.

Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”

Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.

Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.

One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.

No longer.

During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.

Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.

The last woman ever guillotined in France, Marie-Louise Giraud is the subject of the wrenching 1988 Claude Charbol film Une Affaire de Femmes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Wartime Executions,Women

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1741: Not Sarah Hughson, “stubborn deportment”

Add comment July 29th, 2016 Headsman

Supreme Court: WEDNESDAY, 29th JULY.

PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.

The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.

THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.

-Daniel Horsmanden‘s The New York conspiracy: or A History of the Negro plot

On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.

Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.

Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”

One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.

A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.

The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.

This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.

But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.

Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.

Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?

On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records

THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.

She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.

A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.

“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”

Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”

Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.

Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”

Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)

And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.

The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.

But that is a story for a different post.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Women

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1925: Con O’Leary

Add comment July 28th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.

In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.

Forty-six­-year­-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.

Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.

The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.

On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.

The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.

Carey records,

By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”

“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”

At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.

Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.

Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”

When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.

The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.

Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.

On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.

While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.

Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.

Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.

There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summing­up about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s gore­soaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”

In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.

Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.

* Not to be confused with Irish historian Cornelius O’Leary.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Ireland,Murder,Other Voices

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1734: Pierce Tobin and Walter Kelly, “a Spectacle both to Men and Angels!”

Add comment July 27th, 2016 Headsman

Original Dublin broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches: From Eighteenth-Century Ireland:


THE GENUIN [sic] DECLARATION AND LAST DYING SPEECH OF

PIERCE TOBIN AND WALTER KELLY

Sailors, who are to be Hang’d and Quarter’d near St. Stephen’s Green, for the Murder of Vastin Tunburgh a Dutch Skipper, this present Saturday being the 27th of this Instant July 1734.

Friends, Brethren and Country-Men,
I am here presented a Spectacle both to Men and Angels! Sinking, not so much under the Terrors of approaching Death, as the deepest Remorse and upbraidings of Conscience!

Were I brought hither to meet the Fate of ordinary Crimes, then the Confusion of my Face, if not the Terror of my Conscience might be less, but my Crime being out of the usual course of Sin, a Crime not only against the Divine, but human Nature in general, how shall I recommend my self to the Mercy of the one, or the pitty of the other!

I will endeavour thus, With my Lips will I confess, and in my Heart will I be sorry for my sins.

Here mention need not be made of my Birth and Parentage, it being sufficiently known in this City. But I conjure you (as you are People of Candor and Generosity) despite [sic] not the Parents for the Sons Crimes; point not your angry Resentment at their Aged Heads.

Were it any advantage to you my Spectators, or else to my afflicted Soul, to ennumerate [sic] the several Sins I have been Guilty of, I should draw each forth in their deepest shade of Guilt; I should tell, and expose each Circumstance, till I’d faint away under that grievous Task. But why should I do, what would rather terrify, than Instruct you; it is enough; (too much) to say, I Walk’d in the Counsel of the Ungodly.

It also would be unnecessary to give a particular Account of all the Transactions of that fatal Night; let it suffice to add thus much to what I have said, that when I came up to those Dutch-Men at Aston’s Quay, of whom I suppose the Deceased was one, I said, Play away, and gave some stroaks to the Deceased, but had not the least Design of proceeding so far as to take away the Life of any of them.

But since the Law has thought fit to look upon all Persons concerned in a Fact of this Nature, as Principals, I resign my self to their Determination, and Confess my self very Instrumental in the Death of that Person for whom I Suffer, and indeed was I Consious [sic] of having given the mortal Wound to the Deceased, no consideration should now induce me to conceal it.

Thus much from a Dying Object, who humbly begs your Prayers to the Great God for my poor Soul; I Dye an unworthy Member of the Church of Rome, and in the 19th Year of my Age.

Newgate, July 26 1734
Pierce Tobin.

The Speech of Walter Kelly.

Dear Christians,
I am brought here this Day, to Dye, a base and Ignomenious Death, for the Murder of Vastin Tunburgh a Dutchman; nor can I say that I am Innocent, since all Persons that are present at the Transaction of so horrid a Deed, are Guilty alike, according to Law; therefore I can make no excuse at all for my self, yet I will lay before you my Spectators, and that in the briefest and clearest method, the particulars of all the Transactions of that fatal Night, viz.

Mr. Tobin, my present fellow sufferer, and I being intimates, and but just return’d from a Voyage, we both agreed to go to Bagnio Slip, in order to get a Whore; and there being some Dutchmen there who had a falling-out among themselves; we alas! very presumptiously went to their Room, and took both their Pipes and Canddel [sic] from them, I must confes [sic] it was very ill done; but they being reconciled, went their way, but one of them took the Barr of the Door with him, in order (as I suppose) to defend themselves, in case we should follow them, but as God is my Judge we had no such thought, untill one of the cursed Women cry’d out, One of the Dutchmen has taken the Barr of the Door, pray follow them, and take it from them. We being in Liquor, and hot-headed withall, pursued them to Aston’s Quay, among us there arose a Quarrel in which the Dutch Skipper receiv’d his Death; but how, or by what means, I know not, for my part I had neither Sword or Knife, nor am I any way sensible that I struck any one.

But Oh! My God, I must confess that I deserve this Death, for the many innumerable Offences I have committed otherwise against thy Divine Majesty; yet will I not despair of thy Mercy, and I do firmly hope you will say to my Soul, as you did to that of the Penitent Thief on the Cross, This Day shalt thou be with me in Paradise; Grant this O most Heavenly Father, thro’ the Intersecion of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

Having no more to say, but to beg all your Prayers to God for our poor Souls, I Dye an unworthy member of the Church of Room [sic], in the 25th Year of my Age, Good Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul, Amen.

Newgate, July 26 1734
Walter Kelly

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Ireland,Murder,Public Executions

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1912: George Shelton and John Bailey

Add comment July 26th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1912, George Shelton and his brother­-in­-law John Bailey were executed in Nashville, Tennessee for the murders of Ben Pettigrew and his two children. One of them can be identified as a daughter named Pearl. The other child’s identity is unclear; it may be another, unnamed daughter, or a son named Fred.

This is an unusual case because, in the Jim Crow South, these two white men had faced the death penalty for killing black victims, and their crime was characterized by many as a lynching.

Ben Pettigrew was a successful cotton farmer from Clifton, Tennessee. He had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, “unequaled among the colored population of this section of the country.” In fact, he was “regarded as highly as any member of his race in the south.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1912

On December 5, 1911, Ben and his two children were taking a load of seed cotton to a cotton gin in Savannah, Tennessee when their wagon was ambushed on the road by four white men.

Accounts about the murder differ as to what exactly occurred: one story is that Ben was shot and his two children hanged, and their bodies put on top of the wagon and set on fire with the cotton. Another has it that all three victims were tied, alive, on top of the load of cotton and then it was set on fire.

Also unclear is the motive for the crime, if there was any motive at all. According to some stories, the killers may have been white land tenants angry that blacks were occupying their former homes. It’s possible that they were jealous of the Pettigrew family’s respectability and economic success.

Other farmers in the area saw the fire and hurried to extinguish it, arriving just in time to see the four suspects run off into the woods. A posse assembled to hunt down the killers; it started out with 50 men and quickly grew to over 300 volunteers, with bloodhounds. In due course two people were captured; the others got away.

Little is known about Shelton and Bailey, farmhands described by the NAACP as “friendless, ignorant white boys” — a label borne out by the garbled written confession they made:

To the, Publick, and the, honer, cort, of decaturville, Tenn; we was assoated with Mr. J.M. Hill he read the Bible, to us, and talked to us, about our soles, and, all so Read To Us in St. Mathews the 10th Chapter and the, 26 Verce, that thire was nothing covered but, what would, be uncovered and nothing hid what would, be knowen and, he talked to us about telling the truth at the blessed Jesues, said that to tell the truth and, bleave the truth and it would make us, free and we do know that we did a great rong but god has forvie us, as Mr, Hill, had us us to go to god and, he has forgive us, and now we with up stretched, ormes, ask the clemences, and mercies, of, the, People, and, the, cort, to do all the cane, for, us, as we, air both maried boyes and, i Georg Shelton aire onley 18 yares, old. and, never, Had, the, chence, to go to school and raised up by a Good Fother. And, Oh, My, Der, ole, Mother, and my, Wife, and, Little, Baby! If, i, Had Onley of, Knowen at the start what all this would of, cause, me, i would Not, of done, it, for aney amount, of, Money, But, Mr, Lige Scott, tole, me to; That ole Ben ort to be, Killed, and got, out, of, the neighborhood. And John Bailey, is, A Brothernlaw of, George Shelton, and, is 24, yares, old, and His Parints, Died, when he was a Little Boy, and, he, was raised up heare and, yonder, and, kik from Piller, to Post and, we Both, have, no Egacation, and never relised what a black Path, of, sin we have been travling, till Mr. J.M. Hill, Read, the Bible to us, And Praid, for and with us, and then we begin to Relise what we had done.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Tennessee,USA

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

Add comment July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Switzerland,Treason

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326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.

It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any ancient who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**

Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine in paternal good favor.

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.

The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.

We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”

It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.

Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:

But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.

* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that we can more precisely triangulate Crispus’s fall by Constantine’s 326 journey from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence there indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but he disappears from them immediately thereafter.

** The History of Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.

† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.

‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Notably Survived By,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Arthur Grove Earp, shellshocked

1 comment July 22nd, 2016 Headsman

July 22, 2016 marks the centennial of the wartime execution of Private Arthur Grove Earp, by the British Expeditionary Force.

Earp fled the British trenches during the force build-up prior to the first suicidal charges over the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. He was shell shocked by an artillery barrage.

The term “shell shock” only emerged during the Great War — first printed by Lancet in 1915 to characterize soldiers mentally or emotionally debilitated by the horror of war.*

Army brass took an instant dislike to this category: here was a category ready-made to normalize cowardice on the lines and let doctors do to the western front what the Kaiser could not. Was it not an open invitation to abdicate trench, country, masculinity? Neurologist Gordon Holmes, a consultant to the British army, complained that “the great increase in these cases [of shell shock] coincided with the knowledge that such a condition of ‘shell-shock’ existed.” (Source)

The medical officer subsequently created Baron Moran describes with some umbrage this fresh medicalization sapping troop readiness in his seminal study of battlefield psychology, The Anatomy of Courage:

When the name shell-shock was coined the number of men leaving the trenches with no bodily wound leapt up. The pressure of opinion in the battalion — the idea stronger than fear — was eased by giving fear a respectable name. When the social slur was removed and the military risks were abolished the weaklings may have decided in cold blood to malinger, or perhaps when an alternative was held out the suggestion of safety was too much for their feeble will. The resolve to stay with the battalion had been weakened, the conscience was relaxed, the path out of danger was made easy. The hospitals at the base were said to be choked with these people though the doctors could find nothing wrong with them. Men in France were weary. Unable or unwilling? It was no longer a private anxiety, it had become a public menace.

Unable or unwilling? Our principal Earp was just such a one to pose the question.

Earp’s court martial recommended clemency, as did divisional and corps commanders. (Source) General Haig did not agree, and the rejection note he scrawled on Earp’s papers is also his army’s transcendent verdict on countless “shot at dawn” cases:

“How can we ever win if this plea is allowed?”

And so it was not allowed.

Were the British onto something trying to stanch a wave of shell-shocked early retirements? Or was this mere cruelty? Could anyone even draw a bright line between shell shock, the “ordinary” shocks of war, and outright faking?

Baron Moran, whom we have already quoted, was a regimental doctor during World War I. That made him personally responsible for judging maybe-shellshocked men fit for duty, or not. Many years and much investigation later, he still struggled trying to situate those decisions both medically and ethically.

[W]hat I wonder became of pity in those ruthless years?

When I look back I see that I was caught up in the atmosphere of the trenches. It was inevitable and no more than an instinct of self-preservation that the standards necessary to win should not be lowered. Good fellows in the line did not believe in shell-shock, they did not want to believe in it. Perhaps in their hearts, knowing what lay ahead, they could not altogether approve too sensitive men.

I was perturbed at the time not by any difficulty in shaping opinion in the battalion, but by a gnawing anxiety lest the hard temper of the hour should drive men beyond what was fair and just. What was right was also what was expedient, for a sense of injustice eats away the soldier’s purpose. Even now after twenty years my own conscience is troubled by the summary judgments passed on some moor wretch in those days, and by my own part in those verdicts …

These rough decisions worried me because they were not decisions at all but only guesses with a bullet behind one of them. Was that poor devil crouching in that hut, who was to lose his life because he had sought to save it really responsible? Could any man who knew little of war and less of him decide by looking at him? …

I am asked to judge men, to label their motives, and if I am wrong they may be shot not by the enemy but by men of their own race. I think often of the men I have sent back to the trenches, when they have told me they could not carry on, that they were done. Were they really unable or only unwilling? If I had made a mistake, and it was easy to make mistakes, if I were wrong, God help some poor soul … I wondered if my answer to that question, unable or unwilling, had been coloured by pride that this battalion is an example to all in the shortness of its sick list; if that was all what a paltry self-sufficiency! What consequences!

* Although one would translate this into a modern milieu as PTSD, “shell shock” rings a bit differently: its phrasing implies an injury that although unseen is still essentially physical — as if the percussion of the trenches’ ubiquitous falling artillery had pounded in a cumulative neural degradation akin to a punch-drunk boxer. For a time the British army tried to differentiate shell shock cases of those who had been in actual proximity to an enemy shelling (officially discharged as wounded, and entitled to a pension) from those shaken by more diffuse and less window-shattering trauma triggers (not and not).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

Add comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

The last woman executed on Newfoundland hanged on this date in 1834.

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

Born Catherine Mandeville, Catherine was seven children into an audibly-to-the-neighbors combative marriage with John Snow when Snow disappeared in 1833, leaving behind only a splatter of blood on his Salmon Cove fishing stage.

Though the corpse was never found, the inference seemed clear enough — and the suspects were obvious: Catherine Snow, her cousin and lover Tobias Manderville, and a household servant named Arthur Spring. But the whether the crown ever converted reasonable suspicion into proof sufficient to justly hang Catherine Snow was controversial then and remains so today.

Now, if all three did go in together on a murder plot, it was one which signally neglected adequate planning for the police investigation that was sure to follow.

Manderville and Spring were arrested on suspicion of murder, and they were not long in jail befoe Spring summoned the sheriff to announce that “we killed him; Manderville and myself, and Mrs. Snow” — shooting him dead and sinking him into the Atlantic with a grapnel. So, no code of silence here. Soon, Manderville and Spring were each accusing the other of being the guy who pulled the trigger when they went out to murder John Snow together. However the matter of the trigger finger might weigh in their afterlives, it was juridically irrelevant to their fate in Newfoundland.

Catherine Snow was supposed to have initiated this conspiracy and certainly her violent marriage would have given her ample motivation to do so — perhaps a far stronger motivation than the men had. The inference strengthened by Snow’s changing her story to police, and then by her fleeing her home when she heard about Spring’s jailhouse revelation.

But she could never really be shown to have been present at the murder nor proven to have clearly conspired in it, and to the discomfiture of all she insisted on maintaining her innocence all along. “There is no direct or positive evidence of her guilt,” attorney general James Simms admitted to the jury. (Source) “But I have a chain of circumstantial evidence to show her guilt.” The jury convicted her.

Manderville and Spring hanged in the provincial capital of St. John’s mere days after the trial in January of 1834.

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

For six months Newfoundland was abuzz with the case while Catherine Snow came to term, bore her putative victim a posthumous son named Richard, and nursed him in his infancy. Was she really guilty? And guilty or no, could they bear to leave her months to bring new life into the world only to orphan it?

Catherine Snow did not offer the sizable crowd of onlookers any peace of mind when she mounted the scaffold on Duckworth Street on July 21, 1834. “I was a wretched woman, but I am as innocent of any participation in the crime of murder as an unborn child.”

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.

A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)

Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.

Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.

Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)

Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.

A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.

* Notably, the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum had only just begun in 1748; Winckelmann visited the sites.

** It’s the present-day Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Theft

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