Posts filed under 'Crime'

1726: Joseph Quasson

Add comment June 29th, 2016 Headsman

Hanged on this date in 1726, Joseph Quasson enjoys a minor distinction in the annals of the gallows press: according to friend of the blog Anthony Vaver, Samuel Moody’s account of Quasson’s long* jailhouse sojourn was the first published in the colonies as a standalone conversion narrative, without cover of an attached ministerial sermon.

And here it is:

* Quasson fatally shot a fellow enlistee serving during Father Rale’s War. There was no question about his guilt, but when the murder took place the next sitting of the court was nine months away so the man just got to cool his heels.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Maine,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,USA

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1784: Fifteen crooks hanged at Newgate

Add comment June 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1784, no fewer than 15 men hanged on the public scaffold outside London’s Newgate Gaol. Per the next day’s Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer,

William Smith, Isaac Torres, Charles Barton, Patrick Burne, Patrick Birmingham, John Lynch, James Farrel, James Davis, Daniel Bean, Archibald Burridge, Robert Ganley, and Thomas Randal, for burglary; Peter Haslet alias Edward Verily, for personating and assuming the name of Thomas Howard, of his Majesty’s ship the Pallas, with intent to receive his wages; and Joseph Haws and James Hawkins for a street robbery. The above unhappy men came upon the scaffold a little before seven o’clock; they all seemed devout and penitent, and behaved in every respect as became their miserable situation. The plat-form dropped about a quarter before eight, and at the same moment they were all launched into eternity. The concourse was immense; the windows and roofs of the houses commanding a view of the fatal spot, were crowded, and many thousands of people were assembled in the Old-Bailey before six o’clock.

Despite the immense concourse, this gigantic hanging of miscellaneous thieves rates little better than footnote mention in the period’s press. England was gallows-mad; CapitalPunishmentUK.org makes it 56 hangings in 1784 in London alone. There would be an even larger mass execution (20 people) the next February!

Even by the standards of the Bad Old Days, Old Blighty set a terrific pace. “The frequency of English executions was widely noted by foreign observers,” V.A.C. Gatrell writes in The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

The Prussian code had restricted capital punishment as early as 1743, and after 1794 only murderers were executed. Catherine‘s reforms to similar effect followed in Russia in 1767 and Joseph II‘s in Austria in 1787. Philadelphia Quakers dispensed with capital punishment after the American Revolution. In Amsterdam in the 1780s less than 1 a year were killed; barely 15 were executed annually in Prussia in the 1770s, and a little over 10 in Sweden in the 1780s. Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone. [most were reprieved -ed.] Before the guillotine’s invention French punishments were crueller than English … even so, only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774-7, against 139 in London.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

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1996: Daren Lee Bolton

2 comments June 19th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1996, 29­-year­-old Daren Lee Bolton was executed in Arizona for the 1986 kidnapping, rape and murder of a Tucson toddler. Bolton had taken two­-year­-old Zosha Lee Pickett from her bedroom at night, stabbed her to death and left her body in an abandoned taxi in a storage lot two blocks from her home. It was found a couple of days later.

The medical examiner would testify that the toddler may have suffered “excruciating” pain for up to half an hour before she bled out.

After little Zosha’s death, the police lifted some fingerprints but couldn’t match them to any suspect, so in 1987 they sent them out to other states for them to have a try. Bolton had some convictions in Illinois, and so his prints were in the computerized system there. (Arizona didn’t have such a system in place at the time.) In 1990, during a training exercise, Illinois police officers found a match between Bolton’s fingerprints and a print on Zosha’s window screen. At the time, he was already serving time in Arizona for unrelated charges.

At his trial, Bolton admitted he’d been to Zosha’s home and to the cab where her body was found, but denied any part in her murder. Instead, he said he’d planned to break into the Pickett residence with an accomplice named “Phil” but was scared away. Phil, he said, had come back later and taken and killed the little girl. Bolton had then murdered the man and buried his body in the desert.

The jury saw through this wild story and convicted him of burglary, kidnapping and first-degree murder in 1991.

Bolton had the kind of childhood you might expect: shuttled back and forth between his divorced parents and his grandmother, the victim of physical abuse and possibly also sexual abuse, he was designated “severely emotionally handicapped” and had a long string of assaults to his name by the time he dropped out of school.

He was also charged in the 1982 murder of seven-­year­-old Cathy Barbara Fritz, also of Tucson, but he was executed before he could be tried in that case. The child had been abducted walking home from a friend’s home, sexually assaulted and then beaten and stabbed to death, all while a “Take Back The Night” demonstration was going on nearby. Bolton was sixteen years old at the time, and he knew the Cathy’s brother. DNA evidence later tied to him to the crime.

He maintained his innocence in both murders, but fired his lawyers and dropped his appeals after less than four years; he said he’d rather die than spend the rest of his life in prison.

His last meal consisted of lasagna, cheesecake and Pepsi.

Zosha Pickett’s parents and Cathy Fritz’s father and brothers were among the thirty witnesses who got to watch him die. He had no last words and, while he glanced at the Picketts once, he refused to acknowledge the Fritz family before he breathed his last, a few minutes past midnight.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,USA

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1759: Catharine Knowland, the last to hang on the Tyburn Tree

Add comment June 18th, 2016 Headsman


The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia. (via)

On this date in 1759, Catharine Knowland became the last fruit of the Tyburn Tree.

Dating to the Elizabethan age, the triangular triple gallows had long secured its place in death penalty iconography.

Over the years its sturdy limbs ushered to the hereafter London’s most hated criminals and her most beloved; dashing outlaws; steely regicides; holy martyrs — in ones and twos, or in heavy crops of up to 24.

By the time of the Bloody Code, what had once been an outlying village was being absorbed into the city, and as we come to our scene in the mid-18th century was a place of rising respectability decreasingly at home with the sordid task appointed to it — and with the disorderly revel thereby invited. Neighbors were pushing to send away the gallows.


William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747). The execution itself is barely visible, swallowed up in a disordered throng.

In little more than a generation’s time, public executions would indeed be removed from Tyburn altogether. But the tree itself did not quite make it to the end of Tyburn’s famous run.

That evil structure’s last client emerged around midnight on the night of April 16. Returning home late from a night of boozing and/or whoring, one Richard Ireland rounded onto Drury Lane where — he told the court — Catharine Knowland

bid me stop, and asked me where I was going; I said, what is that to you; she took hold on the skirt of my coat, and catch’d hold of my watch and pull’d it from my pocket; I made a struggle with her; then up came a man and said, You scoundrel dog, what business have you with my wife, and down he knock’d me; I was sensible and got up directly and pursued her.

The watch was worth 40 shillings, which meant it was worth a thief’s life.

Knowland unsuccessfully tried to plead her belly, a common enough ploy, but it seems her situation excited some sympathy beyond the ordinary for on this day of her death, “When she came to Tyburn, all the Cross-Beams were pulled down; so she was tied up on the Top of one of the upright Posts, and hung with her Back to it.” (London Public Advertiser, Tuesday, June 19, 1759.)

By that summer, beams and posts alike had been demolished — replaced by a smaller, portable structure, to begin public hangings’ a century-long shrinkage from the raucous mobs under the Tyburn Tree until the spectacle at last vanished behind prison walls altogether.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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2015: Dok Macuei Marer, South Sudan assassin

Add comment June 17th, 2016 Headsman

A year ago today, Dok Macuei Marer was executed by hanging at Wau Prison in South Sudan.

Dok assassinated tribal chief Chut Dhuol in August 2014, in a possible revenge killing for the previous murder of another chief. There is very little information about this whole affair readily accesible online, a circumstance consistent with the sketchy state of information about the death penalty in the world’s newest state. (Executed Today itself predates South Sudanese independence by four years.)

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,South Sudan

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1816: Philip Street

Add comment June 14th, 2016 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, a burglar named Philip Street hanged at London’s Newgate Gaol.

Though his were merely property crimes — which were still capital offenses at the time — Street was such a prolific burglar that the Old Bailey, faced with a stack of seven victims ready to pursue their cases against him, got a death sentence, and then a second for insurance, and paid the remaining five prosecutors to go away.

Street did enjoy some measure of representation: the barrister John Adolphus — whose subsequent representation of the likes of the Cato Street conspirators, John Thurtell and Benjamin Courvoisier all speak better to his prominence than his acumen — mounted the less than compelling technical objection that the court’s documents identified Street’s victim the Earl of Rosebery “as an Esquire, and commonly called a Lord, because in reality he was a Peer of the Realm, and therefore non constat that he an Esquire; and thefore the prisoner could not be convicted on such an indictment” — just the sort of lame cavil that would lead John Stuart Mill to lament in 1820 that “not one-half only but three-fourths at least of [a lawyer’s] business is deception.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1962: The only hangings in independent Cyprus

Add comment June 13th, 2016 Headsman

Three Men Hanged in Cyprus
From the London Times, June 14, 1962

NICOSIA, June 13

Three Greek Cypriots found Guilty of murder were hanged before dawn at Nicosia Central Prison today, the first capital sentences to be carried out in Cyprus since independence in August, 1960. Their fate had been in the balance until 11 o’clock last night, when Mr. Glafcos Clerides, the acting President, announced that after considering all the circumstances, he had decided not to grant a suspension of the executions.

The three men were Hambis Zacharia, Michael Hiletikos, and Lazaris Demetriou. Zacharia was convicted of killing a man with an axe in a Limassol vineyard in September, 1958. The other two were jointly convicted of the murder of a man outside a Limassol cabaret last year.

Last night Mr. Rauf Denktash [the future president of Northern Cyprus -ed.], the Turkish advocate who appeared for Zacharia, had filed a petition in the High Court seeking a declaration that the execution warrant issued by the acting President was illegal and ultra vires, and a declaration that the superintendent of prisons was not legally appointed and could not carry out the executions. The petition was heard in the chamber of Mr. Justice Vassiliades and adjourned for a full court hearing, but this morning was withdrawn.

The English-language Cyprus Mail this morning commends the courage of the acting President and points out that the House of Representatives has power to amend the law if it wishes to abolish capital punishment. It adds that such action is unlikely to be publicly welcomed in view of the number of murders in the republic in recent months.

Despite the correspondent’s confidence in the endurance of the gallows, these first executions for independent Cyprus were also its last executions: no further hangings occurred before Cyprus abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1983, and for all crimes in 2002.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cyprus,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants

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1877: George Washington Fletcher, Philadelphia goon

Add comment June 11th, 2016 Headsman

From the New York Herald, June 12, 1877:

PHILADELPHIA, June 11, 1877.

Corrupt and degrading political associations such as pervade the larger American cities have their natural result in the career of the wretch who expiated his crimes upon the gallows in this city to-day.

He bore the name — Heaven save the mark! — of George Washington Fletcher. Born of a good, respectable family, with a brother an exhorter in the Methodist Church, he has been the black sheep of the flock.

Obstinately repelling all good influences, he has deliberately followed a life of crime from boyhood up, and nothing so well shows the depths to which local politics in this city have sunk as the fact that this man was able defiantly to pursue the life he did merely because he had political friends whose dirty work he did.

Secured immunity from punishment by the small fry ward politicians to whom his aid was valuable, this man was nurtured in the belief that for him the law could have no terrors that “influence” could not remove. The leader of a gang whose services as repeaters at the polls in the interest of a corrupt ring of so-called republicans, Fletcher found that he could defy the law and its officers.

His history is a catalogue of offences against the law, but its sudden ending in the midst of his career, in the very prime of life, proves that justice does not always sleep in Philadelphia, even when a politician is the transgressor.

FLETCHER’S CAREER.

Fletcher was born in a portion of the city called Southwark in 1845. He was only eleven years of age when his innate cruely of disposition showed itself in cutting off pigs’ tails at a pork packer’s yards. He was committed to the House of Refuge for this offence, was soon released and was a couple of years later engaged in a row with a colored boy named Robert Clayton, now living in Atherton street, near Fletcher’s old home, and gave him a serious stab in the side with a knife.

About this time the rebellion broke out, and Fletcher followed the First Pennsylvania Reserves to the Army of the Potomac, deserted and afterward became what was known as a “bounty jumper.”

At the close of the war he shiped in the navy, and was drawn to fill the Swatara‘s quota, one of the vessels which accompanied Admiral Farragut‘s fleet to Europe. On their homeward cruise he deserted from the Swatara at Antwerp. He swam ashore. He then made his way to Liverpool, from which place he worked his passage to Philadelphia on a merchant ship.

Fletcher and James Hanley had both been runners with the Marion Hose, of the old volunteer fire department, and on the formation of the paid department both secured positions. The two had been companions in boyhood, but had grown up very different in character, Fletcher having become a young “rough” and political “striker,” and Hanley a quiet, inoffensive, sober and industrious young man.

Fletcher and his chosen companions planned a series of robberies, but obtained amateur “kids” to perform the dangerous work, while they obtained the “swag” and divided the profits among themselves.

Fletcher’s later career as a fireman was marked with acts of violence, one of which was the shooting of a companion named Stark, which occurred some time previous to the murder of Hanley. This case was settled, like many others in which he was involved, and never reached the courts.

OUT OF EMPLOYMENT.

Fletcher and his early companion Hanley appeared to continue on friendly terms until the spring of 1874, when Fletcherwas arrested, charged with having committed an outrage on a girl about fourteen years of age, named Mary Elizabeth McHugh.

On the 27th of April, 1874, the Grand Jury found a true bill against him on this charge, and he was tried three days after and acquitted, but the accusation cost him his position in the Fire Department. After losing his situation Fletcher was for a long time out of work. He complained greatly of his troubles and placed the entire blame on Hanley. He frequently made threats that he would kill him, and his desire for revenge increased as his repeated efforts to have himself reinstated in the Fire Department were unsuccessful.

On election day, November 2, 1875, the day before Hanley was murdered, Fletcher attempted to vote illegally at a poll in the First war. Frank Wilcox, residing in Redwood street, interposed objections, whereupon the fireman rough levelled his pistol and fired directly at him, but the motion of a friendly hand caused the barrel to point downward, and the ball lodged in Wilcox’s foot. That same day, with pistol in hand, Fletcher was scouring the vicinity of the “Neck” with the intention of killing one Antonio Hale.

HIS LAST CRIME.

Shortly before eight o’clock on the evening of the 3d Fletcher visited the engine house to which Hanley was attached.

At the door he met one of the members named Pinker, of whom he inquired, “is Jimmy Hanley up stairs?”

Pinker replied that he was.

“Then,” returned Fletcher, “tell him to come down; I want to see him.”

Pinker replied, “No, I won’t, George, because if he comes down here there will be trouble between you and him.”

Fletcher replied quickly, “Oh, no there won’t; I saw him up town to-day and we made up.”

“All right, then,” said Pinker, “I will call him,” and he then called up stairs.

Hanley was reading a book, but laid it down and came down stairs immediately. The words, “How are you to-night?” passed between him and Fletcher, and they went toward the the outside together in a friendly way.

Hanley leaned against the jamb of the door, and as a drizzling rain was falling Pinker asked him if he had not better put a coat on. Hanley said yes, and asked Pinker to get him one.

The latter took a coat from the truck and advanced with it to Hanley, telling him where to place it again when he was done with it.

Hanley had just raised his arms to pull the coat on when Fletcher drew a small pistol and fired. The ball entered Hanley’s left breast, cut through the lung and passed into the heart, and, reeling back into the engine house, the wounded man exclaimed that Fletcher had shot him, and fell. Pinker and some of the other firemen lifted him and carried him up stairs to a lounge, on which he expired in about five minutes.

Fletcher was at once arrested. His trial took place a few weeks later, and, a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree having been agreed upon by the jury and a new trial refused, Fletcher on the 12th of February was sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead.” The Governor nixed fixed just one year ago for the execution, but through the legal delays and arguments in the Supreme Court the execution was postponed.

Since Fletcher’s conviction the most strenuous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, mainly by politicians, in whose behalf he has often rendered important services at the polls.

James H. Heverin, the prisoner’s counsel, has also labored most faithfully in behalf of his client, not ceasing his endeavors to procure a pardon or a reprieve until within twenty-four hours of his death.

HIS LAST HOURS ON EARTH.

Recently the conduct of the condemned man has undergone a change under the ministrations of the Rev. Camp, the Methodist preacher, who has been in faithful attendance upon him.

Fletcher leaves a wife and three children, aged respectively five, three and about two years, all of whom have been frequent visitors to him and have had a softening effect upon him.

He has gradually come to be repentant for his crimes and to take comfort in the consolations of religion. Yesterday he was visited for the last time by his family, his counsel Mr. Heverin, Rev. Dr. Westwood, George H. Stuart and others. His last farewells are said to have been very touching.

Fletcher went to sleep about ten o’clock last night and slept soundly for five hours. His spiritual advisers were with him until he retired, and he prayed fervently with them.

When he awoke this morning, at half-past three o’clock, he lit a cigar and sat on a stool in a thoughtful mood. He talked to Keeper Everly of his death, and said he was prepared to die.

“In three or four hours,” said he, “I shall be in heaven.”

Early this morning he was visited by Rev. Messrs. Camp and Pearce, and sang with them in a clear, loud voice, the “Crucified One,” one of Moody and Sankey‘s hymns, commencing, “It is the promise of God full salvation to give,” which seemed, of all sacred pieces, his favorite one.

His voice rang out clear in the corridor, and the prisoners near him must have distinctly heard it, for his door was partly open. His brother-in-law paid his farewell this morning.

THE EXECUTION.

The Sheriff and his party arrived at the prison at eighteen minutes before ten o’clock, and upon being told that his counsel were among the visitors Fletcher sent for them.

An affecting interview was the result, all of the party, including ex-Sheriff Leeds, coming out of the cell with their eyes full of tears.

The scaffold was erected in the convict’s corridor. At ten minutes past ten Fletcher was brought from his cell, and the dismal procession walked to the gallows.

As Fletcher stepped on the fatal trap and faced the spectators below he bore a subdued expression, but displayed no sign of trepidation. A neat black suit* gave him a somewhat clerical appearance, which was heightened by his attitude, his hands being peacefully clasped together, while his head slightly inclined as Mr. Camp prayed fervently that as God had permitted His Son to die for sinners and that whomsoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life, so might His servant, George Fletcher, have his sins pardoned and be admitted to everlasting life.

Then the doomed man, still betraying no sign of wavering, shook hands with the clergymen, the Sheriff and others, and straightened himself up, while the noose was adjusted, his hands manacled behind his back, and the white cap drawn over his face.

He was then left alone on the scaffold, and all but one of the supports under the trap door on which he stood removed.

Rev. Mr. Camp then lifted his voice in a final prayer, saying, “Now, Lord, we commend the soul of George Fletcher to thine everlasting care. Lord Jesus, receive his spirit, in the name of the Father, Son and —-” He had progressed thus far when he was interrupted by the springing of the trap by the Sheriff, who, by pulling the rope, had pulled away the last upright, and Fletcher’s body fell with a jerk.

STRANGLED TO DEATH.

The trap was sprung at eighteen minutes past ten.

The neck was not broken, and the poor man died slowly by strangulation.

At twenty-five minutes past ten, seven minutes after the fall, the pulse was beating 140 to the minute. It lessened rapidly, but it was not until thirty-five minutes past ten, or seventeen minutes after the fall, that the pulse and the heart ceased their action.

The body was then cut down and taken to the deadhouse, where the physicians formally declared death to have resulted from strangulation.


* The suit was provided courtesy of one of Fletcher’s old political bosses, Jesse Tettermary — a little investment in the future loyalty of his other muscle, perhaps. (Per The North American, June 11, 1877)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pennsylvania,USA

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2015: Aftab Bahadur Masih, “I just received my Black Warrant”

Add comment June 10th, 2016 Headsman

A year ago today, Pakistan amid its ravenous 2015 execution binge hanged Aftab Bahadur Masih in Lahore for a 1992 murder.


Two faces of Aftab Bahadur Masih, separated by two decades on death row.

According to the anti-death penalty organization Reprieve, Masih was only 15 years old when he committed the crime. According to Masih himself, he never committed it at all — but instead was tortured into confession by the police.

Don’t take my word for it. Masih wrote a moving first-person essay for the Guardian that was published hours before his hanging.

I just received my Black Warrant. It says I will be hanged by the neck until dead on Wednesday, 10 June. I am innocent, but I do not know whether that will make any difference.

Read the rest here. Masih was also a self-taught painter; one of his products can be seen in this Wall Street Journal story.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pakistan,Ripped from the Headlines,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1743: John Breads, Rye killer

Add comment June 8th, 2016 Golde Singer

On this day in 1743, John Breads met his fate on the gallows in the small Sussex town of Rye, on the south coast of England. The spectacle of his hanging was compounded by the subsequent use of the gibbet, a cage in which Breads’s body was left exposed to the elements in Gibbets Marsh for more than 20 years.

On the face of it, this was just another hanging in the dustbin of history, but author Paul Kleber Monod uses it as the focal point of a book, The Murder of Mr. Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town (review | another), in which he wraps Rye, the murder and the execution into the social structures of England (especially small-town England) of the 18th century.

Although the murder itself is a small part of Monod’s book, he nonetheless outlines two aspects of the Breads story which make it worth a look by readers of Executed Today:

  1. the issue of fairness in the handling of the trial and execution; and
  2. the killer’s attempt to assert “mental distraction”

The facts of the murder itself seem fairly straightforward, although a little quirky, since the whole affair was apparently a case of mistaken identity: James Lamb, the then-mayor of Rye, was invited to dinner on March 16, 1743, to celebrate the appointment of his son John to the customs service. Lamb was feeling ill that day and asked his brother-in- law, Allen Grebell, to attend the dinner in his place. As Grebell was returning home after the event, he was attacked and stabbed in the churchyard by John Breads; although Grebell was able to make it back to his home, he died that night from his wounds.

When Breads was arrested for the murder, he claimed he had intended to kill Lamb, not Grebell. Monod points out that, since Lamb was related (albeit by marriage) to the victim, normal procedure would have been to move any hearing or trial to another jurisdiction, or at least allow an independent jurist to preside over the case. Breads’s assertion that Lamb was the intended victim should have given the Mayor even more reason not to be involved.

Instead, he insisted on keeping the trial in Rye and compounded the irregularity by acting as both prosecutor for the grand jury and as judge for the trial, thus ignoring judicial standards relating to conflict of interest. Additionally, one description of the trial claims that Lamb testified during the trial itself; if this is true, Monod says, such testimony was a breach of common law, which dictated that judges could not testify in cases over which they were presiding.

Monod introduces a commentary by Rye resident and lawyer Henry Dodson, who questioned whether Breads had received a fair trial in light of Lamb’s actions:

How fair a Tryal, the Prisoner had, I leave the Reader, to determine after he is informed, the above Mr. Lamb, was Mayor, Coroner, Party Prosecuting, Judge, Witness and Sheriff, in Presenting, Trying and Executing the said John Breads.

I suppose, he was Mayor, Coroner, and Sheriff, as essentiall, to the office of Mayoralty; Party and prosecutor, as Brother in Law to the Unfortunate good Gentleman, that was Killed; and Judge, and Witness out of Zeal, in getting the Prisoner proved Sane …

Dodson seemed to feel that Lambs involvement in the case was just a little too personal, and the fact that Breads was gibbeted after his execution might lend some credence to that idea. Gibbeting, Monod points out, was not usually a punishment imposed by a judge, but rather by royal order, and it was generally reserved for the most serious of killers.

But Monod puts the trial into a larger social context, suggesting that

the trial of John Breads bears a message about how the law operated in the 18th century [and] stands as an example of how authority might assert itself aggressively and unrestrainedly. The last word belonged to the judge … a kind of paternalism based on the social (and hence moral) inequality between defendant and judge. It was the opinion of the magistrate that counted.

[This] system reflected a social and political structure in which authority had been concentrated in a few hands, usually by inheritance … Breads had little chance of escaping the most extreme form of retribution.

The second point of interest in the Breads trial was that it stood at the cusp of a new understanding of insanity in the commission of crimes.

This is a mere replica of the Breads gibbet on display at the Rye Museum, but the town council still has possession of the original, skull and all. It’s reported to be a highly sought gawk, but it can only be seen by special arrangement.

Although Breads originally claimed his plan was to kill the mayor, he changed his tune at the trial, where he was reported as having said that “if he had committed the Fact, he knew nothing of it, for it was done when he was in Distraction … In short, he affected Madness …” (Kentish Post, June 1-4, 1743)

Or, in today’s parlance that would fitfully develop, “Not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Insanity had been a legitimate defense for years, but the definition of insanity was very much in flux at this time. Doctors suggested that madness was due to a mental defect rather than possession by an evil spirit and lawyers were pushing the idea that homicide required “malice aforethought,” while many average citizens still believed that those who were mad were in the grip of the devil.

Monod proposes yet another possibility by putting the question into a sociological context: “Insanity does not operate randomly,” he writes. “It cannot separate a sufferer from the social context in which he or she exists.”

For Breads, whose upbringing had been closely tied to his church, that context included unsuccessful attempts in the late 1600s by religious purists to wrest control of Rye’s government and economy from the wealthy secular class, and the antagonistic feelings that remained from the abject failure of that effort and the perceived religious persecution that followed it. Breads was no doubt influenced by that antagonism, Monod suggests, and those feelings “may have alienated him from the way the town was governed … [He] wanted to vent his rage on the oligarchs.” As a result, “Even in his madness, Breads was trapped by his own history and that of his native town.”

Whatever the source of Breads’ “distraction,” it did him no good. But it did become one piece of a serious conversation about the issue — a conversation which has continued for centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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  • Hal: I haven’t witnessed this ‘fightR...
  • Fiz: And so it came to pass that Mormonism gave birth to...
  • Headsman: Yes it should! Thank you x2