Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'

1824: Three Bondy brigands

Add comment April 20th, 2015 Headsman

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.

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1779: James Hackman, sandwich wrecker

Add comment April 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1779, Londoners crowded Tyburn to witness the hanging of James Hackman for a sensational high-society murder.

Just twelve days before his date with the hemp, Hackman had walked up to Martha Ray at the Royal Opera and shot her in the head with a single-shot pistol. Then, he turned a second weapon on himself in a vain attempt to commit suicide.

The reader is not mistaken to detect here the mania of unrequited passion. Several years before the young Hackman was a handsome lieutenant introduced to Martha Ray’s social circle. She was a successful soprano on the London stage and though unmarried lived with the Earl of Sandwich as his wife in all but the illustrious name.


(cc image) from Molly Elliott.

Yes, this is the very Earl of Sandwich who pioneered the eating of things stuck between bread slices.* Sandwich — John Montagu to his parents — had other interests besides the munchies; he was the capable First Lord of the Admiralty throughout the 1770s. (As a result, Captain Cook, whose seafaring explorations were occurring at that time, kept naming islands for the Earl of Sandwich).

Domestic life for the Earl and his legal Countess — not “Earless”; that’s a different thing — wasn’t quite as satisfying. Dorothy Montagu, going gradually insane, separated from Sandwich. The lord plucked 17-year-old commoner Martha Ray — a quarter-century Sandwich’s junior — in 1759 and she lived as his mistress from there on out.*

Despite their age difference and never-formalized status they had a comfortable arrangement; Ray bore Sandwich nine children** and the two appeared in public as a couple. The Earl sponsored Martha Ray’s opera career and education.

James Hackman met the Earl’s mistress around 1775 and the two formed an intimacy. Just how intimate they might have been has never been firmly established but is clear that as time passed the infatuation increasingly ran in only one direction. Hackman sold his commission in the 68th Regiment of Foot to become a Church of England deacon, perhaps angling by this expedient to woo Martha Ray away from Sandwich to a wholly respectable union.

She understandably demurred on this “opportunity” — leading the greenhorn Reverend to his blackguard act.

Hackman’s pointless waste of Martha Ray’s life and his own plucked his contemporaries’ sentimental heartstrings like nothing else. “All ranks of people … pitied the murderer’s fate,” remarks the Newgate Calendar. One newspaper report of the death sentence noted that “all present were greatly affected” at Hackman’s agitations “and however we may detest the crime, a tear of pity will fall from every humane eye on the fate of the unhappy criminal.” (General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Apr. 17, 1779)

James Boswell was fascinated by the crime; he attended the trial and spilled many public and private words on its subject.

Boswell empathized with Hackman: in a report of the trial for the St. James’s Chronicle (Apr. 15-17, 1779) he opined that the “natural Effect of disappointed Love, however, shocking it may appear, is to excite the most horrid Resentment against his Object, at least to make us prefer the Destruction of our Mistress, to seeing her possessed by a Rival.” Not that Boswell condoned the murder, but “I would say to all that are conscious that their Passions are violent, Think ye that htis unfortunate Gentleman’s general Character is … worse than yours? No, it is not.”

While Human Justice is to be satisfied, let us consider that his Crime was neither premeditated‡ Cruelty, nor base Greediness. He is therefore an Object neither of Abhorrence nor of Contempt … Let us unite our fervent Prayers to the Throne of Heaven, that this our Brother may obtain Forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and be admitted in another State of Being to everlasting Happiness.

The kinship so many Londoners felt for this homicidal stalker moved print copy high and low, before Martha’s body had gone quite cold. Its most notable product was the 1780 Love and Madness, an epistolary novel of tragic passion presented via the (fictitious) letters exchanged by the supposed lovers. So heavily did this understanding of events by Hackman’s contemporaries color its subsequent remembrance that Love and Madness is also the title or subtitle of two 21st century nonfiction considerations of the affair. (1, 2 | Review of both)

Hackman for his part carried off the requisite public posture of resigned tragic nobility in the few days before he satisfied human justice. The General Evening Post, April 17-20 1779 described the execution:

This unfortunate gentleman received the sacrament in the morning with all the fervency and devotion of a sincere repenting criminal: — he repeated that affecting acknowledgment of his guilt, which on his trial drew tears from the audience, and seemed in a state of composure, unruffled with the idea of punishment, which, he said, was no more than he deserved.

At nine o’clock he came into the press-yard, where a great crowd of persons assembled to gratify their curiosity. That all might have an equal share of the sight, a lane was formed by the multitude on each side, through which Mr. Hackman passed, dressed in black, leaning on the arm of his friend the Rev. Mr. Porter, whose hand he squeezed as he muttered the solemn invocation to Heaven, not to forsake a sinner of so enormous a degree, in the trying hour of death.

Mr. Hackman was conveyed from Newgate in a mourning coach, attended by the Rev. Mr. Porter Mr. Villette, the ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Leapingwell, a Sheriff’s officer.

He reached Tyburn about a quarter before eleven o’clock. When he arrived at the fatal tree, a cart lined with black was under the gallows ready to receive him. Mr. Porter and Mr. Villette ascended it by a pair of steps, and he followed them unsupported. As soon as he had got into it he walked forward, and fell on his knees, (a position seldom used by persons in his circumstances at Tyburn, as they always pray standing) and the Clergymen did the like, one on each side of him, where they remained praying for about fifteen minutes, then got up, when the rope was put about his neck, and tied to the gallows.

In this manner he remained praying between the two Divines for ten minutes more, when the Rev. Mr. Porter embraced him, and Mr. Villette took his leave, and both left the cart. The convict[‘]s cap being pulled over his face, he told the executioner to leave him to himself for a few minutes, and he would drop his handkerchief as a signal when he was ready, which he did after a few minutes pause, and was thereupon launched into eternity.

His whole behaviour was manly, but not bold: his mind seemed to be quite calm, from a firm belief in the mercies of his Saviour.

He wore not hat, not any bandage on his face where he gave himself the wound, that the public curiosity might not be interrupted in looking at him; saying, “that he wished to be made a public spectacle of, and hoped his death might be of service to mankind.”

He was no ways convulsed, nor was their [sic] any motion of the body that tended to shew it experienced any pain. Nothing more was to be seen than what proceeded from the jerk on quitting the cart.

The mob was more numerous than on any other occasion since the death of Dr. Dodd. It was expected Mr. Hackman would suffer at Covent-garden, and preparations were made by some speculating carpenters, who met with a mortifying disappointment.

After hanging the usual time, his body was put into a hearse, and taken to Surgeons-hall in the Old Bailey, where it was prepared for the inspection of the public.

Mr. Harkman expressed a wish to his friends, that the ceremony of anatomizing his body might be dispensed with; and that his corpse might be treated in the same manner as that of Lord Ferrers.

Mr. Hackman intimated to a particular friend, that if his remains could be deposited near those of Miss Ray he should feel inexpressible happiness in the hour of death.

A man who was standing near a dray in Oxford-street to see Mr. Hackman pass, was thrown down under one of the horses by the crowd; the horse being frightened, stamped on the man, and beat out his brains.

* Allegedly so that the Earl wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table to dine.

** There is a wonderful bon mot that has enlivened compendia of anecdotes through the years, consisting of more or less the following exchange:

First speaker: You will either die on the gallows or of some social disease.

Second speaker: That depends upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Though it’s been variously attributed, it appears that the retort was originally delivered by the comic Samuel Foote to Lord Sandwich — about Martha Ray.

† Notable among the five children of Sandwich and Martha Ray: jurist Basil Montagu.

Sandwich’s wife also bore him a legitimate son, who eventually succeeded to the father’s Earldom; the title still exists today.

‡ Hackman had to be talked off simply pleading guilty but in the end he hung his trial hopes on arguing that he intended to kill himself, in Martha’s presence, and was overwhelmed by a momentary “phrensy”. A letter in his pocket meant to be delivered posthumously to his brother-in-law supported this claim; the fact that he brought two guns to meet her rebutted it.

Trial judge William Blackstone pointed out to Hackman’s jurors that the composure of the accused before and after the crime did not suggest a madman and that accepting Hackman’s claim of only an instant’s insanity could present a very slippery slope indeed for future murder prosecutions.

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1635: Elizabeth Evans, “Canonbury Besse”

Add comment April 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Elizabeth Evans (known as “Canonbury Besse”) was hanged for murder.

Sometimes characterized as one of early modern Europe’s pioneer serial killers, Evans was not driven to slaughter by compulsion — merely by its emoluments. Using an early version of the timeless “Lonely Hearts killer” scheme familiar to a later era of classified adverts and Craigslist postings,* Evans and her beau Tom Sherwood committed at least five homicides via the expedient of Canonbury Besse’s allures.

Once the prospect had been enticed to a private rendezvous, Sherwood — “Country Tom” — would jump him, and the couple would rob the body. A straightforward enterprise, with a straightforward consequence. (Sherwood had already gone to the gallows on April 14th.)

The ballad “Murder Upon Murder” blames Evans for seducing Sherwood, “a man of honest parentage”, both bodily and spiritually:

she sotted so his minde,
That unto any villany,
fierce Sherwood was inclind,
His coyne all spent he must have more,
For to content his filthy (Whoore).

So shocking was the spree these lovebirds carried out — as reflected in nicknames that denote a degree of celebrity — that they were doomed to posthumous terrors as well.

Sherwood was hung in chains near St. Pancras Church where he so notably failed to deter crime that a later group of thieves, frustrated at finding their mark penniless, contempuously lashed him naked to Country Tom’s gibbet.

“Oh pity! Still running on to more mischief, having such a fearful spectacle before their eyes as Country Tom, which should rather have frightened and hindered them from doing this bold and insolent act,” laments Henry Goodcole in Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a narrative pamphlet trading on that same “fearful spectacle.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a pamphlet narrating the crimes of Sherwood and Evans.

Canonbury Besse was bound over to the surgeons for anatomizing — well before this particular terror became a common extension of murder sentences. According to The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, both Sherwood’s and Evans’s skeletons would ultimately became ornaments on permanent display at Inigo Jones‘s 1636 London anatomy theater,** and could be seen there as late as 1784.

* Consider, for instance, America’s Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — or Henri Landru, French predator of World War I widows.

** Diarist Samuel Pepys described a visit to this theater in 1663.

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1355: Filippo Calendario and Bertuccio Isarello, Doge stooges

Add comment April 16th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1355 was the morning after the failed coup of Venetian Doge Marino Faliero. And it was the first date that vengeance began to fall upon the plotters.

Faliero, voted power by the fellow-noblemen who bossed the Serene Republic, intended to displace the patrician class with commoner support. The scheme called for Faliero’s supporters secretly to mobilize hundreds of men who on April 15 would gather at the Piazza San Marco and mount their surprise takeover. But the plot sank like a stone on the big day, with anticipated adherents turning out sparsely or flatly declining and word soon reaching aristocratic ears of trouble afoot. The would-be masters of Venice were soon rounded up without resistance by the real masters of Venice.

In this misfired drama, Faliero’s henchmen — the men to whom the task of orchestrating the cells who would summon the traitor militia — were Filippo Calendario and Bertuccio Isarello. And on this, the following day, they tried, sentenced, and by evening hung from upper windows of the Ducal Palace. Both men were gagged: one last precaution against the sort of popular exhortation that they had not managed when it counted.

“The earth was set in motion,” one chronicler recorded of the Venetian establishment’s reaction to the menace. (Source) Faliero would die the next day; in all, eleven gibbeted corpses festooned the palace as a warning against the next aspirant.

Isarello was the captain of a Venetian galley who had been appointed by Faliero — controversially bypassing the usual noble prerogatives — and had rewarded his prince by expertly harrying Genoese merchantmen.

Calendario (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German), Isarello’s father-in-law, was a stonemason, sculptor and architect who actually worked on the very palace he was hanged from.


Column capital of Drunken Noah dating from the period of Calendario’s work on the Venetian Ducal Palace. (cc) image from Honza Beran.

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1322: Bartholomew de Badlesmere

Add comment April 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1322, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, the first (of only two) Baron Badlesmere,

The barons in the dangerous age of Edward II were marked by where they made their political allegiances between the king and his rival the Earl of Lancaster.

Badlesmere? He … evolved.

The man could tack to the wind with the very best of them, or the very worst; he was reviled as the Benedict Arnold of 14th century England for chickenheartedly failing to protect the Earl of Gloucester when the latter impetuously charged to his death at Bannockburn. As a bard of the time put it,

This is the traitorous man Bartholomew, whom in all victories may God confound, because he has been to his master as changeable as a pharisee. Hence, as the representative of Judas, he shall be condemned to death … because he refused to come to his master’s support this traitor has deserved to be put to the rack … deserved to suffer judgment of decapitation.

As the 1320s began, he was a stalwart of what has been termed the “Middle Party”, whose position vis-a-vis Edward and Lancsaster was what you would expect from the name.

Badlesmere badly misplayed a strong hand by defecting in the so-called “Despenser War” to the anti-Edwardian party, even though Lancaster pretty much hated his guts — and now the king did, too,* dissipating any mutual goodwill that might have been earned a few years before when the king’s favorite (and the war’s namesake) Hugh Despenser went and rescued Badlesmere’s wife from an attack.

And unlike at Bannockburn, Badlesmere here stepped into the trap rather than out of it.

Lancaster’s party was decisively defeated on March 16, 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

Days after the battle, Badlesmere was caught skulking in a glade by the Earl of Mar and shipped to Canterbury for trial. He was condemned to death on this date, and sent directly from court to a hurdle dragged by a horse to Blean three miles away, where he was hanged and beheaded. He was one of 20 or so lords and knights Edward had put to death.

Lancaster himself was another — although a “Contrariant” whom he didn’t execute, Roger Mortimer, would make Edward regret his clemency by overthrowing the king four years later.

* In an affair that Edward II biographer Kathryn Warner thinks was neatly contrived by the king, his Queen Isabella called on Badlesmere’s wife when the latter held Leeds Castle sans husband. Lady Badlesmere refused to admit the queen, giving Edward a welcome excuse for besieging a fortress holding out against its sovereign.

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1805: Mary Morgan, anomalously

Add comment April 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.

An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.

“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”

That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.

Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.


Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.

We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.

The most recent executions for infanticide at this point in London appears to be those of Jane Cornforth in 1774 and Sarah Reynolds in 1775. According to Anne-Marie Kilday’s A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, hanging Welsh infanticides was practically ancient history at this point: the last such execution ordered by the Court of Great Sessions in Wales had been way back in 1739 — and the court would not order another one before its 1830 abolition.

During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?

The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.

One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.

The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?

Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”

Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:

Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.

* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.

** Look for Judge Hardinge in Lord Byron’s Don Juan:

There was the waggish Welsh Judge, Jefferies Hardsman,
In his grave office so completely skill’d,
That when a culprit came for condemnation,
He had his judge’s joke for consolation.

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1969: Alexandre Banza, Central African Republic politician

Add comment April 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1969, the Central African Republic’s dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa had his number two condemned for plotting against him, and summarily shot.

Back on New Year’s Eve of 1965, Alexandre Banza had been on the same team as Bokassa in the conspiring business — achieving a rapid promotion from Captain when he leveraged his command of the Camp Kassai military base in support of Bokassa’s successful coup against his (Bokassa’s) cousin, David Dacko.

This was a great career move for Captain Banza, who speedily became Colonel Banza and the Minister of State and Minister of Finance to boot. But it wasn’t long before this made man looked to Bokassa like his main threat.

Notorious for his vanity — a few years after the events of this post, Bokassa, an unabashed admirer of Napoleon, would proclaim himself Emperor of the “Central African Empire” — the chief looked askance at his finance minister’s willingness to challenge Bokassa’s profligacy. Over the year or two prior to Banza’s execution, Bokassa maneuvered to push him away from power … and Banza maneuvered to create a power base for himself from which to launch his own putsch.

In the end it was Camp Kassai that played the decisive role once again. The guy with Banza’s old job as camp commandant, one Lt. Jean-Claude Mandaba, was supposed to be in on the plan, but on the eve of the intended April 9, 1969 coup, he tipped off Bokassa.

“The following afternoon Banza arrived at Camp Kassai with plans for the coup in his pocket,” writes Brian Titley in his Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa:

As he stepped from his car, Mandaba and a couple of soldiers grabbed him. So fiercely did he struggle to escape that the soldiers had to break one of his arms before overpowering him. The ambushers then tied him up, stuffed him the trunk of a Mercedes, and took him to meet the man he had sought to depose. … [Bokassa] was jubilant at the sight of his former companion-in-arms being brought to him in chains. Banza was in poor shape after the journey to Berengo, but his torments were only beginning. Bokassa launched the interrogation by beating the prisoner almost senseless with his ever-present walking stick.

Bokassa was only narrowly dissuaded from thrashing this turncoat to death on the spot, and instead consented to a pro forma military tribunal — although rumors of the pre-death punishment visited on Banza once he was captured have muddied the waters quite a bit. Banza was reportedly hailed before the Cabinet and personally brutalized by Bokassa; Le Monde even reported that he’d been outright killed in this meeting and dragged through the streets by soldiers.

Bokassa was deposed by the French in 1979,* and condemned to death in absentia the following year. The former strongman voluntarily returned from exile in 1986 to face trial for a variety of abuses during his reign; his treatment of Alexandre Banza — and that of Banza’s family, a number of whom were arrested and some “disappeared” — formed part of the very extensive charge sheet. Though sentenced to death himself in that trial, Bokassa’s sentence was eventually commuted. The ex-emperor lived out his last years in a private home of his former capital.

* France’s “last colonial expedition,” in the words of one of her diplomats.

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1945: Pvt. Benjamin Hopper

Add comment April 11th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1945, mere weeks before Germany’s surrender, U.S. Private Benjamin F. Hopper of the 3170th Quartermaster Service Company was judicially hanged for murder.

“The case was straightforward,” notes French L. MacLean in his book The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II. He describes it as “an excellent example of stupid situations that soldiers could get themselves into, if they had been drinking and did not consider the consequences of their actions.”

Quite so.

On the night of the crime, Hopper and four other soldiers were hanging out in a cafe in the town of Welkenraedt, Belgium, just outside of Liege. Just after midnight, Hopper got into an argument with one of his companions, Private Randolph Jackson Jr.

The two men argued frequently and the other three in the group were used to it, and didn’t take them seriously when they started threatening to shoot each other. Finally Private Jackson handed Hopper his gun, presumably daring him to shoot. Hopper shot him dead, then told the witnesses, “You didn’t see nothing.”

At his court-martial, he did not testify and there was no defense. Hopper protested about this later, saying he didn’t get a fair trial: “My Defense Counsel said he was going to tell them. Told me to stay silent. So, he got up and told them I wasn’t guilty. He didn’t say much else.”

Unlike many military men sentenced to death during World War II, Hopper showed remorse for what he had done. Still he asked for leniency and penned a letter to General Eisenhower beginning:

Gen. Eisenhower

Dear Sir, I was tried for mudder and the court find me guilty and sences me to be hong Sir. And Sir I am asking you to please Sir look in to this mader close Sir for me because I have made a great mucstake Sir and wont you give me another chanch in the armey.

Hopper’s IQ tested at 50, putting him in the moderately mentally retarded range, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him stated he had a mental age of about nine, “bordering on mental deficiency.” Someone with that degree of mental disability would not be permitted to be executed today.

Some people argued that the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, citing Hopper’s intellectual impairment and the lack of premeditation. Weighing against that was his prior recorded offenses of going AWOL and being in Liege without an official pass. The Brigadier General who reviewed the case recommended that the death sentence stand, and Eisenhower agreed.

Hopper died on a clear, warm morning in Le Mans, France. At 11:00 a.m., his hands and ankles were bound and he said his last words to the chaplain: “Father, I would like you to write to my mother.” The trap sprung at 11:01 and Hopper was pronounced dead at 11:24.

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1879: John Phair

Add comment April 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a circuitous four-year journey to the gibbet — quite Odyssean by 1870s standards — concluded when John P. Phair was hanged in St. Albans, Vt., still protesting his innocence.

Phair was convicted on circumstantial evidence of the murder of his former companion, Ann Freese: that circumstance was his pawning the late widow’s watch in Boston.

Though police had the exact serial number of the timepiece, Phair staunchly insisted that the man who sold it was not he — damning the Jewish pawnbrokers who identified him as the seller:

Their business is that of pawnbroking — a life of fraud. Their race bears the curse of God, because they crucified his Son eighteen centuries ago … They don’t regard an oath administered in the Christian form.

That salty quote is courtesy of the case file in the excellent historical crime blog Murder by Gaslight, which tracks the strange subsequent progress of John Phair to the gallows in 1877.

On that occasion, two years nearly to the day before his eventual execution, Phair had been due to die — but his supporters had also roused considerable skepticism on the justice of the sentence. For instance, the murderer had apparently covered his tracks by torching the place, and Freese’s remains were discovered badly burnt after the fire was put out. But this fire was detected at 7 a.m., three hours after the departure of the train Phair would have taken to Boston. And Phair produced a quasi-alibi in the form a train passenger who tentatively corroborated Phair’s claim to have merely switched trains in Boston without stopping long enough to fence a watch. So …

Is John P. Phair Guilty?
Boston Evening Journal, April 4, 1877

Wherever the judicial system proposes to situate the threshold for conviction and condemnation, some subset of messy real-life cases will always smudge the brightest of lines. Phair’s contemporaries simply could not satisfy themselves that they really had the right man. But neither were they convinced of Phair’s repeated denials. In the absence of moral certainty, legal process takes the reins. A dramatic eleventh-hour reprieve from the governor saved Phair in 1877. But as Murder by Gaslight notes:

The problem for Phair now was that by Vermont law he could not ask for a new trial if more than two years had passed since the original verdict. The governor granted him another reprieve until the first Friday of April, 1879 while the legislature debated changing the law.

Phair won this battle — the legislature empowered judges to refer such a case to the Supreme Court — but lost the war. In February 1879, Vermont’s high court considered, and then quickly rejected, Phair’s appeal. Past this point, exertions for the condemned man became the longest of shots, but this is not to say that they did not continue. The man’s exhaustive last-ditch efforts, some by his own hand and some mounted by his friends, have a whiff of the familiar present-day spectacle to them. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer sarcastically titled its after-action report “Hanged At Last”)

Phair won a six-day reprieve from a scheduled April 4 execution; on the eve of the hanging, two judges were taking Phair’s last appeal for a fresh trial; and on the morning of the execution the state’s governor was obliged to reject Phair’s supporters’ plea for a delay to allow the legislature to intervene yet again. (Phair didn’t even know this last one was occurring.)

The man himself was reported calm in the last hours, even as he persisted with his denials. Guilty or not, he finally fell through the long-awaited gallows trap murmuring “Lord, remember me!” at 2:11 p.m. on this date in 1879.

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1980: Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr , Muqtada al-Sadr’s father-in-law

Add comment April 9th, 2015 Headsman

Iraqi cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was hanged on this date in 1980 in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

One of the greatest Shia scholars of the 20th century, Sadr laid the groundwork for modern Islamic banking. During the ascendancy of Arab nationalism, Sadr wrote sharp critiques of the rival Cold War systems and helped to found the Islamic Dawa Party.*

As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)

And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.

* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring that Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr attained his martyrdom.

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