It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.
The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”
Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.
Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.
To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:
it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.
The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.
Thanks to the outstanding Trove digitized records of Australian newspapers, we have this item from the Advertiser (Adelaide) published May 4, 1910, concerning an affair from two days previous on the other side of the globe.
The death penalty was barely in use in Switzerland at this point; Muff’s execution would be the fifth-last for common crimes in Swiss history.
LONDON, May 3.
Mathias Muff, who some time ago murdered four persons in the canton of Lucerne, was executed in Lucerne, the capital, yesterday, the guillotine being used.
This is the first execution which has taken place for many years in Switzerland, Lucerne being one of the cantons which have re-enacted the death penalty after its abolition. Muff, when urged to sign a petition to the President for the commutation of the death sentenced, refused, saying, “I cannot live to hear the voices of fifteen orphans reproaching me.”
There was some difficulty in obtaining a guillotine, there being none in existence in Switzerland, and the authorities were compelled to secure the loan of one from the French Government. In France there are but two official guillotines, and both are kept in Paris, but one is specially reserved for executions in the provinces. Neither of these could be spared, but one was obtained from the French colonies, which between them have nine.
The cost of the guillotines is said to be £250 each, but they are well made, for the two now in use in France were made in 1870 in the place of those burnt during the Commune and by all accounts they still work as well as when first tested on a bundle of straw.
At 10:29 a.m. on this date in 2013, 46-year-old Steven T. Smith was executed in Lucasville, Ohio for the 1998 murder of his girlfriend’s daughter, Autumn Breeze Carter.
Killer and victim.
The Ohio Parole Board called him “the worst of the worst” and concluded, “It is hard to fathom a crime more repulsive or reprehensible in character.”
No wonder: Smith had literally raped six-month-old Autumn to death.
Summing up the case in January 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court wrote,
We find nothing about the nature and circumstances of the offense to be mitigating. For ten to thirty minutes, Smith brutally raped and murdered Autumn Carter while her mother was asleep in the apartment. The violent nature of the attack was demonstrated by the fact that Autumn’s hair was ripped out, her vagina and anus were seriously damaged, she was suffocated by the weight of Smith on her small body, and she suffered subarachnoid and retinal hemorrhages. The crime is nothing less than a horrific, senseless murder committed against a small, defenseless baby.
Little Autumn died on the night of September 29, 1998. Her mother, nineteen-year-old Kesha Frye, woke up at 3:30 a.m. to discover a naked and extremely drunk Smith placing the baby’s naked body on the bed. Autumn’s tiny pink sleeper was found under the living room coffee table, clumps of her hair were on top of the coffee table, and shreds of her diaper were scattered around the room. The rest of the diaper was in a trash can outside.
According to court documents, paramedics summoned by Frye’s frantic 911 call
observed injuries on [Autumn’s] head and bruising around her eyes. They began CPR, and Autumn was transported to the hospital. The emergency room doctor testified that upon her arrival, Autumn had no pulse and had suffered a retinal hemorrhage. In addition to her visible bruising, the physician also stated that Autumn had bruising around her rectum and that the opening of her vagina was ten times the normal size for a baby her age…
They spent an hour trying to revive her, but it was too late.
Smith denied knowing anything about it: “I didn’t do anything. I’m not sick like that.”
He would keep up his denial for the next fourteen and a half years.
The cause of death was determined to be compression asphyxia and blunt force trauma to the head. Medical experts would testify that Smith could have suffocated the child by accident about three to five minutes into the assault, which may have lasted up to half an hour. The prosecution, however, contended he had deliberately beaten Autumn to death.
(During the trial, the coroner used a baby CPR doll to demonstrate how Autumn was injured. The doll’s head and one its legs actually came off in the process. One is reminded of the “Brides in the Bath” case where, when they were demonstrating how the defendant might have drowned his victim, they nearly killed their model.)
Five witnesses testified on Smith’s behalf during the sentencing phase of his trial. Relatives stated he’d started drinking at age nine or ten and struggled with an alcohol problem his whole life. His biological father was absent and his first stepfather was a violent substance abuser, but his second stepfather was a “decent guy” and his grandmother was also a positive influence early in his life.
A clinicial psychologist who tested him placed his IQ in the low-average range and could find nothing wrong with him mentally other than alcoholism and chronic, mild depression. A corrections officer testified Smith rarely broke the rules in jail and was always respectful of the guards. Prior to his arrest for Autumn’s murder, Smith’s only criminal convictions had been for DUI.
The month before his death, when he appealed to the parole board for clemency, Steve Smith finally admitted his crime. He said he hadn’t meant to kill Autumn and offered the lame excuse that he was too drunk to realize what he was doing. His attorneys called it “a horrible accident.”
That Steve Smith was very, very drunk that night was never in doubt. Eight hours after the attack his blood alcohol level tested at .123, well above the legal limit. The police found ten beer cans in the trash bin with Autumn’s diaper. An expert who testified for the defense believed Smith’s blood alcohol level was somewhere between .36 and .60 at the time of Autumn’s murder — enough to kill most people, but Smith had developed a tolerance.
Smith’s last meal consisted of fried fish, pizza, chocolate ice cream and soda. He declined to make a final statement. He only stared at his daughter behind the glass. She and her cousin wept after Smith was pronounced dead; Autumn’s family cheered.
Kesha Frye: “I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope he burns in hell.”
Patrick Hicks, Autumn’s grandfather: “Because of him, Autumn never had a chance to take her first step, she never had her first birthday or a first day at school. It’s just unfortunate that this man gets to die a peaceful death after the torture he put Autumn through.”
Brittney Smith, Steve’s 21-year-old daughter: “I know my dad’s innocent. I do not believe he did this, and you know, he raised all my cousins, my sister before I was even born, and he never did anything [sexual].”
Steve’s attorney: “He was well-behaved and sober while in prison, causing no problems in the institution and living each day with the guilt and grief caused by his alcohol-fueled crime. While some may trumpet his execution as appropriate revenge for his crime, Ohio is no safer having executed Steven Smith than had he lived the remained of his natural life in prison.”
On this date in 1963, Jorge del Carmen Valenzuela Torres — better known as Chacal de Nahueltoro — was shot at Chillan for murder.
Perhaps Chile’s most recognizable mass-murderer (in the non-political category) the drink-addled young peasant one summer’s afternoon in 1960 took a scythe to his 38-year-old inamorata — and slaughtered all of her five children besides. (None of the children were Valenzuela’s own.)
The horrifying crime became grist for an acclaimed movie, but “the Jackal” was also noted for his dramatic personal turnaround during the two-plus years he spent awaiting his firing squad. In one of those paradoxes of the poor, Valenzuela was a man whose world cared for him only once he was condemned to death: he learned to read and write in prison and embraced spiritual counseling that made the fellow in front of the guns an altogether different creature from the homicidal brute.
While this rebirth made the execution itself controversial, it has also amazingly helped to elevate Valenzuela into the ranks of Latin America’s criminal folk saints. His tomb in San Carlos is crowded with votive offerings in thanksgiving for his intercessions.
(The actor who played Valenzuela in that film later collaborated on a 2005 documentary Bajo el Sur: Tras la Huella de un Asesino Milagroso — exploring the popular devotions that have arisen around his character’s real-life inspiration.)
Moments after midnight today, Indonesia shot eight men for drug trafficking.
Coffins and grave markers for the condemned, readied prior to their executions.
Bitterly controversial in Australia and dominating headlines there at this hour, the execution’s most prominent victims were Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, condemned as ringleaders of an Australian drug-smuggling ring dubbed the Bali Nine. (The other seven members of the ring have prison sentences.)
Australia has reportedly withdrawn its ambassador to Indonesia to protest Jakarta’s turning a deaf ear to the many public and private appeals it has floated on behalf of its citizens.
The others shot early this morning were:
Nigerians Okwuduli Oyatanze, Martin Anderson, Raheem Agbaje Salami, and Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise
Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte
Indonesian Zainal Abidin
The party of eight was initially to be as many as ten. Frenchman Serge Atlaoui mounted a legal challenge that has for now delayed his execution; Filipina Mary Jane Veloso, who has claimed that she was completely unaware of the heroin hidden in her luggage when she arrived in Indonesia as an Overseas Filipina Worker, was spared just minutes before the execution at Manila’s urgent request when the woman alleged to have been her handler turned herself into police in the Philippines. But neither Atlaoui’s nor Veloso’s death sentence has actually been lifted, and both could eventually be shot to death
Chan’s and Sukumaran’s executions in particular are playing worldwide as a stark culture clash relative to a West that is more and more backing off the drug war,* especially given the widely advertised rehabilitation of Bali Nine duo. Chan found god; Sukumaran, a passion for painting.
Myuran Sukumaran’s ominous painting from just a few days ago: “Time is Ticking: Self-Portrait”
But one of the most self-evident readings of the affair is as a banal exercise in political expedience.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who hasn’t the firmest grasp on power in his country, has a surefire political winner in executing drug smugglers — plus a cherry on top for defying Australian meddling into the bargain.
Not that Widodo was ever likely to waver, but his southern neighbor’s great gnashing of teeth probably only strengthened his resolve to pull the trigger. If the intent of Indonesia’s death sentence is to scare prospective mules off crossing Indonesian soil, it was so much free advertising.
“This cannot be simply business as usual,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said — but both leaders know the score. Countries don’t undo statecraft for common criminals.
Feelings are sure to be raw for the immediate future, and matters might develop quickly for the still-ongoing sagas of Serge Atlaoui and Mary Jane Veloso. Live blogs at the Guardian have a fascinatingly wide spectrum of reaction (Twitter intervention by @AxlRose!) from the evening of the execution and its aftermath.
The first execution in Tunis since the French occupation took place yesterday. Three Kroumirs, Ali Ben Debbah, Mahomed Ben Salah, and Ali Ben Salah, who had assassinated two Kabyle merchants in order to rob them, were guillotined in the morning at the Saadoun Gate.
At half-past 4 o’clock, M. Herbault, the Procureur of the Republic, in presence of several officials, announced to the condemned men that their appeal for mercy had been rejected. They received the statement very quietly, although they protested, as they had previously done, that they were innocent. As the prison is at some distance from the place of execution, it was not till 25 minutes past 5 that the prison van, preceded and followed by a company of Zeuaves, reached the place of execution, where a large crowd had assembled. At half-past 5 the bodies were removed to the Sadiki Hospital.
In order to put down any attempt at disturbance a large number of soldiers were drawn up near the guillotine, but there was no occasion for their services. There were very few natives among those present at the execution. A fourth Kroumir, who was condemned to death for the same crime, was informed yesterday that his sentence had been commuted by the President of the Republic.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”
-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864
An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.
Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”
Two hundred years ago today, Lancaster Castle hosted a quintuple hanging, starring career thief George Lyon.
At age 54, Lyon could be considered a throwback: he openly styled himself “The King of Robbers”, inspiring a sarcastic hack “to congratulate the inhabitants of Wigan and the neighbourhood, and indeed the country at large, on the conviction of George Lyon.” (This notice ran in a number of publications at the time.) He was basically a well-known crook and authorities were thrilled to get one of his fellows to turn Crown’s Evidence on him and make a charge stick.
He had eleven indictments including a stickup of the Liverpool mail, and on this basis has been described as the last highwayman executed at Lancaster — but in the main his methods less romantic and more straightforward. The crime that hanged them — for Lyon died along with two confederates, plus two other unconnected men — was taking advantage of the access a house-painting hire afforded them to just loot the joint.
Lyon did make sure to class it up for his hang-day, however, in a natty black suit and jockey boots to be on point for some 5,000 Lancastrians who reportedly crowded the banks of the castle moat to gawp.
Lyon’s wife arranged to take the body — saving the old footpad from a posthumous anatomization — and buried it in Upholland in the grave of their daughter, Nanny Lyon. (The stone can still be seen to this date: it does not mention George.) It’s been alleged that his spirit has been spooking the place in the 200 years since, including at the venerable White Lion Pub, adjacent to Nanny and George’s final resting place.
Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, April 29, 1815
On this date in 1897, criminals William Haas and William Wiley became the first two people to be executed in Ohio’s electric chair. Haas had actually been scheduled to die earlier that month, but the chair had a damaged electrical coil and his execution was postponed so the coil could be replaced.
William Wiley (left) and William Haas.
Haas, an illiterate farm worker, had had murdered Mrs. William Brady, his employer’s wife, the previous summer in Cincinnati. He raped her, slit her throat after she threatened to tell her husband, and set the house on fire to cover his tracks. Some berry pickers nearby saw the fire, though, and put it out before it could cause any real damage. Haas found himself arrested that very same day. He was only seventeen years old.
Thirty-eight-year-old Wiley, a tailor who was also from Cincinnati, had shot his wife to death in a drunken, jealous rage, “seemingly possessed by the devil himself.” After the murder he hid in a closet and was injured in the ensuing fight with police officers as they attempted to arrest him.
The prison officials made Haas and Wiley flip a coin to determine which would die first, and Haas “won.” He was electrocuted at 12:27 a.m.
Just after his body was removed from the chair, Wiley was brought in. A Sacramento Daily Unionarticle summarized the results:
An examination of the bodies after they had been removed to the prison morgue did not disclose even the slightest abrasion or irritation of the skin at the points of contact, and the physicians and experts pronounced the executions as perfect as it was possible to make them.
Bondy, today a Paris suburb, was in the Middle Ages a forest notorious for the bandits and murderers who laired in its leafy shadows — a reputation stretching back to antiquity. The Merovingian king Childeric II was assassinated while hunting there.
Just as the French Revolution swept away the titles and prerogatives left over from feudal Europe, it put the onetime thieves’ forest on the track to respectability. The golden age of the highwayman was rapidly closing anyway; as the 19th century unfolded, the lumberman, the railroad, and the police inspector combined to drain away the outlaw’s arboreal habitat.
Take the tram where angels once feared to tread. ((cc) image from gasdub.
But such transitions do not happen overnight, and on this date in 1824 were guillotined in Paris three representatives of this vanishing species — brigands from a ferocious gang who, in the words of their executioners’ memoirs, “excelled in the art of waylaying stage-coaches, and killing the passengers if they refused to give up their money.”
Renaud, Ochard and Delaporte were their names; five others of their band had received sentences of life in prison at hard labor.