Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'

1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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1766: William Whittle

1 comment April 5th, 2015 Headsman

William Whittle, a Catholic, was executed at Lancaster on this date in 1766 for murdering his Protestant wife and their children in a religious frenzy.

For whatever reason, several years into his union, Whittle took deeply to heart a priestly warning that he was liable to damnation for marrying a heretic. He accordingly ended the marriage by

“cleaving his Wife’s Head with an Axe, and ripping her Belly open, and afterwards cutting off the Heads of the two Children, one of whom he also ripped open and took out its Heart.” (St. James’s Chronicle, April 5, 1766)

(The children, Whittle said, had been imperiled in soul by their mother’s taking them to an Episcopal church; in murdering them their loving father had sent them to purgatory en route to heaven, saving them from eternal hellfire.)

Whittle was condemned to be hung in chains for the shocking crime, a demonstration that Catholics understood as aimed pointedly at them. At least of their number replied with like menace in an anonymous letter to the Rev. Mr. Oliver of Preston, the magistrate who committed Whittle to prison.

Sir, I make bold to acquaint you, that your house and every clergyman’s that is in the town, or any black son of a bitch like you, for you are nothing but hereticks and damned fouls. If William Whittle, that worthy man, hangs up ten days, you may fully expect to be blown to damnation. I have nothing more material, but I desire that you will make interest for him to be cut down, or else you may fully expect it at ten days end. My name is S.M. and W.G.

(Letter as quoted in the Leeds Intelligencer, April 22, 1766 — also the source of the newspaper screenshot above)

Mainstream suspicion of Catholics at this time — which was within living memory of the last great Jacobite restoration attempt — was quite deeply ingrained; as one can see from the riposte above, the sentiment was mutual. After all, these were matters of eternal salvation even if Whittle himself “appeared to be a stupid, bigotted, ignorant fellow.”

The shocking family butchery evoked a minor wave of fretting over insidious Catholic-Protestant intermarriages. I think the present-day reader will not have much difficulty recognizing contemporary analogues to this thrust of resulting commentary:

I am likewise persuaded that there are many lay-papists in the kingdom who abhor this fact of Whittle as much as any protestant can do. But if their religion does not give countenance to such doctrines as this alledged by this miserable man, why do they not by some public act disavow their approbation of them? why do they leave suspicions upon themselves and their religion by their silence, when such occasions call upon them so pressingly to explain themselves, and particularly when they are complaining of the severity of the penal laws[?]

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1895: William Lake

Add comment April 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1895, William Lake died in the electric chair for soiling Albion, N.Y., with a most gory crime of passion.

The farmhand Lake nursed a very one-sided crush on a servant in the household of farmer Joseph Van Camp, 18-year-old Emma Hunt. One October night in 1894, the farmer called on a neighbor, leaving the two alone in the kitchen.

He returned an hour later to find Emma Hunt slaughtered as if by a demon. Her throat was slashed ear to ear and cross-shaped slashes to her abdomen had nearly disemboweled her. Nearby lay a bloody hammer that had caved in her skull. Lake was nowhere to be found, but he only dodged the sheriff’s posses for a few days before an officer caught him hiding in a barn.

It turned out upon Lake’s ready confession that this crime of passion was also one of calculation. Emma, said Lake, “bothered me and hectored me” in disdaining his affections, and “I made up my mind I would kill her.” (New York Herald, Oct. 22, 1894)

While the family ate supper on that horrible night, William Lake wrote out a confession to the murder he was going to commit once left alone, and packed a satchel with which to flee. (He forgot the satchel when the time came.) Lake’s written confession attributed a lifelong bitterness to his illegitimate birth.

He did not attempt to mitigate the crime in any way and welcomed a death sentence that was conducted within seven weeks of his conviction.

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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1307: Murcod Ballagh, beheaded

Add comment April 1st, 2015 Headsman

“In the yeare 1307 the first of Aprill,” Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland records, “Murcod Ballagh was beheaded neere to Merton by sir David Caunton knight.”

First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.

As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.

(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)

But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.

“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”

“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”

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1843: A bunch from Heage hanged

Add comment March 31st, 2015 Headsman

The Derbyshire village of Heage achieved a bit of lasting notoriety with the triple hanging on this date in 1843 of three of its felonious sons: Samuel Bonsall, William Bland, and John Hulme.

“They hang ‘em in bunches in Heage” and “You can tell a man from Heage by the rope mark on his neck” are a couple of the ungenerous quips attached to the trio’s native soil on account of their villainy.


Heage. (cc) image from Stephen Jones.

Bland, at 39 the senior member of the group, gave a confession admitting that the three had invaded a home outside Derby occupied by a 72-year-old spinster named Martha Goddard and her sister Sally.

It should have been a simple burglary. Clobbering Sally and chasing Martha upstairs, they set about ransacking the place. Since only Bland bothered even to defend himself, and his defense was that he was only there to steal and not to kill, it’s a bit difficult to grasp exactly what happened that led the party to beat her dead. Bland said that he heard from a different room Martha Goddard shriek out for her sister.

Cellmates of Bonsall’s — a source that we do not ordinarily consider to be presumptively credible — said that Bonsall saw Hulme facing Goddard in her bedroom when she begged of him, “Man, man, what a man you are; I have given you my money; tell me what else you want, and I will give it to you; but spare my life.”

Hulme, they testified at third hand, snapped back, “You old bitch, I want some of your five-pound notes” — and smashed her with an iron crowbar. For his part, Hulme gave a confession fingering Bonsall as the murderer.

They had only a week from conviction to contemplate the state of their case and their soul. In the end, the three “made no confession that could be relied on, each endeavouring to fix the guilt of the murder upon the other.” (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, April 3, 1843) They were hanged at Derby gaol.

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1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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4 BCE: Antipater, disinherited Herodian

Add comment March 29th, 2015 Headsman

The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.

Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.

But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.

Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.

Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.

But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.

Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”

Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.

The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.

Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …

But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.

As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.

So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.

* There’s also a Herod Agrippa who appears in the Acts of the Apostles, executing St. James the Great. He is still another king of the same line.

** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus famously cried cried upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.

Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.

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1884: Tombstone hangs five

Add comment March 28th, 2015 Headsman

The frontier town Tombstone, Arizona saw its first legal hanging on this date in 1884 — and its second, third, fourth, and fifth besides.

On the 8th of December ult., Daniel “Big Dan” Dowd, Comer W. “Red” Sample, Daniel “York” Kelly, William “Billy” Delaney and James “Tex” Howard rode into the nearby town of Bisbee in an attempt to seize the $7,000 payroll for the Copper Queen Mine.

Sadly the bandits mistimed the arrival of the boodle. Having already committed to the raid, they improvised a plunder of the general store and the valuables of any nearby customers they could lay the sight of their sixguns upon. And then on the way out, villainous mustaches a-twirl, the gangsters shot up the town and slew four good residents of Bisbee.

The survivors telegraphed the sheriff of Tombstone, the seat of Cochise County.*

This Bisbee Massacre was just two years on from Tombstone’s signature moment, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral — and it had a similar whiff of the lawless frontier.

Arrayed against Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral** had been the so-called “cowboys”, a network of desperadoes who found this last vanishing enclave of the lawless frontier a congenial environment for opportunistic outlawry: livestock rustling, smuggling, stagecoach robbery, and the like.

The line between legitimate businessman and criminal element was as permeable as the nearby Mexican border. As Tombstone’s posses hunted down the five Bisbee shooters over the ensuing weeks, interrogations would reveal that Bisbee saloon-keeper John Heath — an Ohio native of shady reputation who could be found during the gunfight cowering behind his own bar — was actually the moving spirit behind the raid. He would later testify in a piece of hairsplitting vainglory that of course it was he who conceived it all, as his henchmen were too stupid for such a plan … but the part where they started shooting people was none of John Heath’s idea.

Heath was smart enough to get his own trial separate from his goons, and smart enough to work a jail sentence where his cronies were set up for execution.

Folk in Tombstone were incensed at this leniency and on February 22 they reversed it by extracting Heath from his irons and lynching him to a telegraph pole at First and Toughnut.

The Alfred Henry Lewis Wolfville books (available in the public domain) dramatize a fictitious western town loosely based on Tombstone … complete with vigilance committee and a strong female character named Nell.

It was fairly clear under the circumstances that the five toughs awaiting their March 28 hanging date had no need to entertain any hope of mercy.

Nonetheless, legendary frontierswoman Nellie Cashman — later to be inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame for her exertions in that arctic gold rush was at this time resident in the silver boom town of Tombstone.

So appalled was the Irishwoman at the highly improper festive civic atmosphere prevailing in Tombstone as the executions approached that she organized a gang of her own: a team that on the eve of the hangings secretly dismantled a grandstands some ghoulish entrepreneur had erected in order to at least permit the event to go off with some modicum of solemnity.

* Cochise County, Arizona, was named for the great Apache warrior.

** Actually, the shootout was neither in nor abutting the O.K. Corral.

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1889: Mark Francis and James Turney

Add comment March 27th, 2015 Headsman

LEBANON, Tenn., March 27. — Mack Francis and James Turney, negroes, were hanged at 12.23 this afternoon for the murder of Lew Martin last summer. They showed a great deal of bravado and confessed their guilt after ascending the scaffold. Francis struggled much, but Turney died instantly, his neck being broken. The execution was private, but a large number of people stood around the gallows.

Lew Martin was a half-witted, inoffensive negro. On the evening of the murder he went to church, having $7* in his possession. This he imprudently displayed, and the two men who were to-day hanged saw it. They planned the murder while sitting behind the church, and shot their victim as he was on his way home. In his confession Francis said:

We waited outside the door of the church till the crowd came out, and when Martin was about one hundred yards down the road we followed him. When we caught up with him he was walking with some of the people from the church and we fell back and waited till he got by himself. Then we caught up with him again and walked along, one of us on each side of him. Then Jim drew his pistol and shot him twice. Lew’s head fell forward and he said ‘Jim.’ Jim then turned to me and said threateningly, ‘Shoot; why don’t you shoot.’ I then shot twice, and hit Lew in the body, and Jim shot three more times, when Lew fell. We went through his pockets and found seven dollars, and Jim took four dollars and I took three. When we killed him we thought he had more money, but when we left the church I had no idea of killing him.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1889.

* The equivalent of about $175 in 2014 dollars. (via)

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