Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'

326: Crispus and Fausta, incestuous lovers?

Add comment July 23rd, 2016 Headsman

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

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

But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.

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

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

So it went with Crispus — for a while.

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

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


Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1916: Arthur Grove Earp, shellshocked

Add comment July 22nd, 2016 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it was not allowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1834: Catherine Snow, the last hanged in Newfoundland

Add comment July 21st, 2016 Headsman

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

Historical novel about Catherine Snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow had a substantial reprieve: she was pregnant.

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

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

CNN reporter Mary Snow is a descendant of Catherine Snow.

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

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1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

Add comment July 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.

After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”

By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.

But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.

So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.

A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Spain,Torture,Treason

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1741: Othello, Doctor Harry, and five other New York slaves

Add comment July 18th, 2016 Headsman


New-York Weekly Journal, July 20, 1741.

On this date in 1741, six slaves named Othello, Quack, Venture, Frank, Fortune, and Galloway were hanged, and a seventh, “Harry the Negro Doctor”, burned — all casualties of the ongoing investigation into the purported slave plot to torch colonial New York.

A truly horrific day in the city’s history. However, as we have noted in our entry about the last prior mass execution of this affair, these July bloodbaths surprisingly turn out to be all about the court extricating itself from a potentially limitless investigation into the servile classes.

With the return of the Chief Justice James De Lancey from New England on the first day of the month — taking control of the court from the implacable inquisition of his junior partner Daniel Horsmanden — the whole judicial momentum turns away from compounding arrests upon accusations and towards disposing of cases already in hand and tying up loose ends.

But there were a lot of loose ends … and some of them could only be tied up with hemp.

For some of the nearly 100 slaves in the city dungeon when De Lancey returned, the evidence was so scanty that they were outright released. Most of the rest were disposed of through an almost shameless wink-nod arrangement: the slaves pleaded guilty to the terrorist plot (vindicating the court’s diligence, and also the blood it had already shed), and in exchange were not executed but approved for convict transportation (sparing life and limb for the slaves, and financial injury for the owners).* Almost every weekday the court would open nominally in a proceeding against six or ten or twelve black men and women only to hear all plead guilty and promptly adjourn upon the court’s recommendation of mercy. Under “inbox zero” De Lancey, these people were not pressed to name more names, and when they did so those potential new arrestees were often left unmolested. (We shall arrive shortly at a notable exception.)

On July 15, 1741, De Lancey actually held court. True, there were 14 more Negroes, “most of which had been made Use of as Witnesses,” who were on this occasion recommended for pardon and sale abroad. But our doomed seven plus an eighth man, Tom, were the last ones in the jail who were refusing to plead guilty. (Tom was convicted with the rest, but his sentence was abated.)

It reads like a principled stand but if so, their integrity was unequalled by their trial strategy. They simply “said nothing material in their Defence, but denied all alledged against them.”

Unfortunately with everyone singing from De Lancey’s hymnal as the price of their own necks, there were a good many witnesses prepared to alledge. For this trial, six black slaves described the accused hanging around arch-plotter John Hughson, “talking about the Conspiracy to set the Town on Fire, and to kill the white People.” Besides the slave evidence, two white people also denounced the prisoners: Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ former servant whose ever-growing became the ubiquitous crown witness in all cases; and, William Kane, an Irish soldier who had been named as the plot’s inside man at the fort by the slave Will when the latter burned at the stake.

Kane was just the second white person in all this time to join Mary Burton on the prosecution’s witness list — and he was obtained with chilling ease.

The very night that Will burned, July 4, Kane was taken up. Examined the next day he denied knowing anything about the plot or even where Hughsons’ tavern was located.

But, Horsmanden recorded in his journal of the proceedings, “while Kane was under Examination, the Under-Sheriff came and informed the Judges, that Mary Burton had declared, that she had often seen him at Hughson’s, amongst Hughson, his Wife, &c. and the Negroes, when they were talking of the Conspiracy, and that he was one of the Confederates.”

A dramatic moment ensued, gut-wrenching even in Horsmanden’s few sentences.

Chief Justice De Lancey, “who was a Stranger to the Transactions concerning the Detection of the Conspiracy” and could therefore still be shocked by the casual way this teenager rolled into her conspiracy stories whomever some frightened prisoner had recently implicated, “thought proper to admonish the Witness in an awful and solemn Manner, concerning the Nature of an Oath, and the Consequences of taking a false one, more especially as it affected a Man’s Life.”

Would the girl fluster under this magisterial caution? Would De Lancey himself dare to press it so far as to discredit the one witness his court had depended upon for prosecuting the conspiracy thus far?

No. “She answered, she was acquainted with the Nature of an Oath very well, and that she would not take a false one upon any Account.” De Lancey dropped the point, and Mary Burton was sworn in, saying

That she had seen the said Kane at Hughson’s very often, talking with Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, Peggy Salingburgh alias Kerry, Caesar, Vaarck’s; Galloway, Rutgers’s; Prince, Auboyneau’s, and Cuffee, Philipse’s, Negroes; and the Discourse amongst them was, That they would burn the Town; the Fort first, the Governor and all his Family in it, and kill all the white People; and that she heard the said William Kane say, that he would help them all that lay in his Power.

Kane, “his Countenance changed, and being near fainting,” called for a glass of water. Kane was no fool, and when the court explicitly confirmed to him “the Danger he was in, and told [him] he must not flatter himself with the least Hopes of Mercy, but by making a candid and ingenuous Confession” he duly swallowed the draught prepared for him — albeit “after some Pause” and “tho’ at the same Time he seemed very loth to do it.” There was no way out — not for the court, not for Mary, and not for Kane — but for the soldier to corroborate her story. He numbly did so, although one would rather know how he spoke about this episode of his life under the seal of the confessional.

There is a deadening similarity to these stories, of course; it is not merely retrospective interpretation that surfaces the perverse incentives newly-arrested slaves faced — it is remarked a few times via the comments of slaves themselves in Horsmanden’s own record. “Moore’s Cato advised him and Pedro, to bring in many Negroes, telling Pedro, that he would be certainly burnt or hanged if he did not confess,” in one description … “but that if he brought in a good many, it would save his Life; for he had found it so himself; and must say, he was to set his Master’s House on fire, which would make the Judges believe him.” Why this day’s crop refused to take their out we don’t really know. Maybe they were stubborn — or had a care for their soul — or more than death feared being sold out of the place that had become their home, and onto some backbreaking sugar plantation in the West Indies.

But two of our group merit notice for more unusual profiles.

“Doctor Harry” was an unauthorized medical practitioner on account of his race and station, and so had been driven out of New York City years before. He made his home thereafter on Long Island, forbidden from venturing into New York on pain of flogging. The physician’s addition to the plot segued into the frightening prospect of a poison angle to the race war.

“A smooth soft spoken Fellow, and like other Knaves, affected the Air of Sincerity and Innocence” in Horsmanden’s words, Harry was already on the judges’ radar when a slave named Adam accused him. (Soon joined by the reluctant William Kane.) That he was on their radar as someone who was not allowed in the city does not seem to have counted a great deal. “He stifly denied all, and declared, that he never was at Hughson’s, nor had he been in Town since he was ordered out by the Magistrates.”

Othello had also been out of town during events — not by banishment, but because he was Chief Justice De Lancey’s own slave, and had accompanied his master’s New England mission during the spring when New York went arson-crazy.

Aptly for his name, Othello reads in Horsmanden’s narrative as a tragic figure who unlike Doctor Harry was ready to say what he had to say to save his own life but hanged because he couldn’t reconcile himself in time to the urgency of his situation.

Horsmanden, who also would have been Othello’s personal acquaintance, clearly respected the slave; in the judge’s estimation, Othello “had more Sense than the common Rank of Negroes” and was one of “the Head Negroes in Town.” Maybe Othello counted too highly the weight of his association with the judges, or maybe since he was out of town he simply did not have the right feel for the witch-hunt dimensions the arson investigation had taken. Reading bulletins from his city, De Lancey had questioned Othello about the plot and Othello had denied any knowledge of it. Did the slave suppose that a Head Negro in Town could be above suspicion?

De Lancey disabused him of any such hope in late June when the Chief Justice received word that Othello had been denounced in the investigation, and promptly shipped his slave back to New York in chains.

He arrived in the last days of the governor’s official amnesty window for slave confessions, having heard God knows what of proceedings from his distance. His accuser Adam gave him sound advice in the city hall’s then-teeming basement prison: “to confess … [as] a Means of getting him[self] off.” But Othello at first refused to do so, even when warned that he had little time remaining to take advantage of the amnesty.

Othello being asked, Why he so positively denied on Saturday, that he knew any Thing about the Plot; though he was warned of the Proclamation, and that the Time therein limited for the Confederates to come in and make voluntary Confession and Discovery, would expire as Tomorrow; and notwithstanding he was told, that there was full and clear Evidence against him, Why he did not take the Recorder’s Advice, and confess then what he had done now? He answered with a Smile,

Why, Sir, I was but just then come to Town.

The reluctance is easy to understand. Othello was the Man Friday to a colonial oligarch: it was worth a risk to defend that position against the loss in stature and comfort that would surely result from being sold abroad. Besides that, he needed time to get his bearings: who was accusing him of what? What cards did he hold?

Othello soon understood that advancing a strong claim of innocence would be a nonstarter, so on the eve of the amnesty’s expiration he tried to claim it by offering a “confession.” It’s the first of several that would be extracted from him; each is a noticeably minimalist contrivance to fit his circumstances of the moment — too cute by half, a cruel observer might say. In late June, Othello simply named a bunch of names that others had already named with few additional details. The judges could see very well that this was no better than a token submission.

Come July 12th, having been issued a summary death sentence upon the guilty plea he had committed to, Othello expanded that confession. Now he detailed a longer intimacy with John Hughson — but one in which Othello, although aware of the plot, repeatedly refused to swear hiimself to it. The plot as the court understood it required its adherents to promise to kill their own masters. By insisting he had never sworn, Othello wanted to avoid going on record with any intent to slay James De Lancey. He was a week from execution at this moment, and still he dreamed that maybe De Lancey would one day take him back.

But the privilege Othello clung to might have already begun to cut against him. As an appearance-of-propriety issue vis-a-vis his white neighbors, was De Lancey, the highest judge in the colony and the wealthiest man in the colony, going to spare his own property from the full rigor of the law when his court had so readily destroyed other men’s slaves? The judges considered where Othello stood with his late and cloying “confessions”, and on July 16 recommended against extending him a pardon.

Still Othello tried one last time — on the very morning of his execution. On that occasion, Horsmanden took down one last, expanded confession … and even at this desperate hour, Othello was trying to thread the needle where his master’s life was concerned.

That Adam persuaded him, since he came in Jail, to say, that he had agreed to kill his Master and Mistress; and that by saying so, he would get clear: But this was all false, he never engaged to do any such Thing, nor was it ever proposed to him by Hughson, or any one else; only Hughson told him, he must rise with the Mob, and kill the People in general, as the rest were to do.

No doubt poor Othello had invested many of his last hours going over this decisive confession, trying to calibrate it precisely. Unfortunately, it showed.

For Horsmanden and his fellow judges, what Othello had provided was “neither voluntary nor free, but came from them very unwillingly, and after much Persuasion” and Othello as with his fellow-prisoner Quack only “acknowledged their Guilt in general, by their Plea, and by their Confessions, in a few Particulars, thinking thereby, as it may well be inferred, to come off as cheap as they could.” Horsmanden does not seem far from the mark in this observation, much as posterity might doubt his certainty that “both had it in their Power to make very considerable Discoveries.” At any rate,

The Judges could by no Means think them proper Objects of Mercy; and had they recommended them to the Governor as such, and his Honour had pardoned them, such Lenity towards them, might have been deemed Cruelty to the People.

As ghastly as this was for Othello and his mates, this date essentially finished the court’s business with the Negro Plot.

Does that mean we have reached the end of our series? Alas, the court’s bloodthirst had not quite been slaked. … for in the course of winding down, Horsmanden et al had opened one last line of inquiry, in hot pursuit now for a true arch-villain to lurk behind the passe conspiracies of slaves, an enemy dread enough to equal the advertised danger to New York City.

“The Old proverb has herein also been verifyed,” a satisfied Horsmanden would eventually report of this last phase that was even then opening up “that there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.”

* This was also the explicit preference of acting governor George Clarke, who on June 20 wrote to London that he “desired the Judges to single out only a few of the most notorious for execution, and that I would pardon the rest … whereby their masters will transport them out of hand.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1381: John Ball, radical priest

1 comment July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1813: John McDonald and James Black, Edinburgh robbers

Add comment July 14th, 2016 Headsman

From the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1813:

On Wednesday, M’Donald and Black, who were convicted before the High Court of Justiciary of the robbery and murder of Mr. Muirhead, near Coltbridge, were executed upon the spot where the murder was committed. About one o’clock these unfortunate young men were brought out of prison and placed upon a cart, having seats elevated and railed round.

They were escorted along the Lawn Market, Bank-street, the Mound, and Prince’s street, by the magistrates of the city, the high constables, a detachment of the Northampton and Norfolk militias, a party of the 7th dragoons, and the city guard.

Upon reaching the west end of Prince’s street, the procession halted, where the magistrates delivered over the prisoners to the sheriff of the county, and they were then escorted by a strong detachment of the Mid Lothian yeomanry cavalry, and the sheriff and police constables, through the village of Coltbridge to the place of execution.

After some time spent in devotion, the prisoners mounted the platform, and about a quarter before three they were launched into eternity.

On the way to the place of execution the prisoners employed their time in reading, but occasionally looked round on the surrounding multitude. At the place of execution they behaved with seeming fortitude and resignation; in a particular manner, Black, who first mounted the platform, and prayed.

M’Donald was not visited by any catholic [sic] clergymen till after sentence had been passed upon him. On the first visit, he was found not so grossly ignorant as might have been apprehended, seeing that he had never attended any religious duty: and his dispositions seemed to correspond with his awful situation.

On the scaffold, as on the way to it, and indeed during the whole preceding day, he seemed entirely taken up with those exercises of devotion which had been suggested to him as proper for the occasion. In all appearance he died truly penitent and resigned to his fate.

At half past three the bodies were cut down, and conveyed in the same cart, escorted by a body of constables, to the College of Edinburgh, and delivered over to the professors of anatomy.

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

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1860: Albert Hicks, the last pirate hanged by the US?

Add comment July 13th, 2016 Headsman

The hanging of Albert Hicks on Bedloe’s Island on this date in 1860 marked perhaps the last execution for piracy in U.S. history.*

This was a century and more past the Golden Age of Piracy. By the mid-19th century, the picaresque buccaneer had long ago hornswaggled his last doubloons and retired from Atlantic sea lanes into literary nostalgia. According to the Espy file, there had been only a single piracy death case, a double execution in Virginia in 1852, over the preceding quarter-century.

Hicks, who alternately went by William Johnson, wasn’t exactly Captain Kidd: think less freebooter, and more hijacker.

Shipping out of New York on the sloop E.A. Johnson, Hicks — urged on by the devil, he later claimed — seized the vessel by murdering two crewmates, Oliver and Smith Watts, and the captain, George Burr. As that was the entirety of his company, that gave him the ship too. He didn’t mean to raise the Jolly Roger and go a-plundering with his prize: he simply stripped his victims of portable valuables, pitched their bodies into the drink 50 miles off Sandy Hook, and abandoned ship. Eventually the creepy hulk of the E.A. Johnson drifted back into New York’s harbor.

Hicks was tracked down in Providence, R.I. and arrested a few days later — the only survivor of a bloodstained mystery ship who happened to have a large quantity of coins he couldn’t quite account for.


1860 ballad, set to the tune of “The Rose Tree”.

As pieces fell into place, it emerged that Hicks had some previous experience as a seaborne desperado. Indeed, he published a confession admitting to quite an extensive career in. The life, trial, confession and execution of Albert W. Hicks, the pirate and murderer, executed on Bedloe’s Island, New York Bay on the 13th of July 1860 for the murder of Capt. Burr, Smith and Oliver Watts on board the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson: containing the history of his life is available free online and details a bloody life’s adventure from Peru to gold rush California that might even qualify as a swashbuckle — if it’s true.

Newsmen meeting him during his incarceration not infrequently express skepticism of Hicks’s veracity and motivations as he attaches himself to new outrages; in particular, Hicks might have been interested to create sensational gallows copy in order to support the family he would soon leave behind. One report shortly after Hicks’s arrest (Boston Courier, March 29, 1860) has his soon-to-be-widow visiting Hick’s cell where “she broke out upon him in the most vituperative language, charging him with being a bloody villain. She held her child up in front of the cell door, and exclaimed, ‘Look at your offspring, you rascal, and think what you have brought on us. If I could get in at you I would pull your bloody heart out.'”


Execution report from the July 14, 1860 New York Herald.

* The U.S. also enforced — loosely — its anti-slaving provisions under piracy statutes, so the 1862 execution of slave trader Nathaniel Gordon occurred under an anti-piracy law. Whether that makes him pirate enough for the milestone, the reader may judge.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New York,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1995: Boris Dekanidze, the last in Lithuania

Add comment July 12th, 2016 Headsman

Lithuania conducted its last execution on this date in 1995, distinguishing Vilnius crimelord Boris Dekanidze with the milestone.

Dekanidze was born in Georgia, but had no citizenship anywhere. His father Georgy cashed in on the collapse of Soviet rule with businesses that, to survive and thrive in the 1990s, would be mobbed-up practically by definition. “When you have a collapse of government and total incompetence, people appear who can organize themselves and influence the lives of others,” Georgy said in this Newsweek report. “I can’t say if this is good or bad.” Georgy ran the Hotel Vilnius, an apt metaphor for the era.

The dapper son was convicted of ordering the murder of investigative reporter Vitas Lingys, founder of the still-extant Lithuanian newspaper Respublia* — a conviction sustained on the evidence given by the admitted gunman, Igor Akhremov.

“The collapse of government and total incompetence” was a much more nettlesome foe than this or that murderer, however. The single bullet fired into Dekanidze’s head on the morning of July 12, 1995 crippled his own criminal syndicate, the “Vilnius Brigade” — but it was not long before new gangs emerged to replace it.

Lithuania abolished the death penalty in 1998.

* Despite the punishment meted out in this one case, a wave of 1990s journalist assassinations around the former Soviet Union during the 1990s went mostly unsolved.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lithuania,Milestones,Murder,Organized Crime,Shot

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