Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'

1868: Priscilla Biggadike, exonerated Stickney murderess

1 comment December 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Priscilla Biggadike withstood one last gallows-foot plea from her minister to admit to poisoning her husband.

‘I implore you not to pass away without confessing all your sins; not only generally, but especially this particular case, for which you are about to suffer. I had hoped that you would have made that confession, and thus have enabled me, as a minister of Christ, to have pronounced the forgiveness of your sins … It has grieved me much to find that [you] still persist in the declaration, that you are not accountable for your husband’s death; that you still say that you did not administer the poison yourself; that you did not see any other person administer it, and that you are entirely free from the crime. Do you say so, now?

The Prisoner, still in a firm voice, said, yes.

The Chaplain. — There is only one [hope] left, that you have endeavoured to confess your sins to God, though you will not to your fellow creatures. All I can now say is that I leave you in the hands of God; and may he have mercy on your soul. What a satisfaction it would be to your children, to your friends, to your relations, to know that you had passed from death into life, in the full persuasion that your sins were forgiven you … I am sorry I cannot exercise that authority [to pronounce sins forgiven] at the present moment.

Then, at the stroke of 9 a.m., she was hanged by ten-thumbed executioner Thomas Askern at the stroke of 9 a.m. True to form, Askern made a mess of it, and Biggadike painfully strangled to death with the rope’s knot infelicitously positioned under her chin* … although, since this execution was behind the walls of Lincoln Castle (in fact, it was the first female hanging after an 1868 Act of Parliament had made all hangings private), at least it didn’t incense a vast concourse of onlookers.

Posterity, though, has taken plenty of umbrage at Priscilla Biggadike’s fate.

She and her late husband Richard kept two lodgers in a two-room house in the village of Stickney.

Richard already suspected an affair between Priscilla and one of those lodgers, Thomas Procter (or Proctor), when he returned home from work on September 30, 1868, enjoyed tea and cakethat his wife had made for him, and then fell violently, fatally ill. The post-mortem examination showed Richard Biggadike had been poisoned with arsenic.

Priscilla Biggadike and Thomas Procter were both arrested on suspicion of murder but charges against Procter were soon dropped.

Priscilla was known to have quarreled with her husband over that whole infidelity thing, and she had alluded at least once to having arsenic around for killing mice. She was accordingly found guilty of poisoning him, though “only,” in the words of the jurors when the judge pressed the question, “upon the ground of circumstantial evidence.”

Indictment, trial, conviction, and execution for the “Stickney Murderess” wrapped up in two months’ time. But the discharged co-accused, Thomas Procter, years later made a deathbed confession that it was really he who poisoned Richard Biggadike.

(During the investigation, Priscilla had even attempted to blame Thomas Procter, reporting that on one occasion prior to the murder he’d even made what looked like an attempt to poison Richard by mixing white powder into his tea, after which Richard became sick. Police didn’t regard the accused as a particularly credible source for obvious reasons, but it’s hard to believe anyone would have failed to follow up on that sort of lead.)

On account of that whole wrongful-hanging mix-up, Priscilla Biggadike received a posthumous pardon. She’s even had a short musical made about her conviction, which was recently performed in Lincoln Castle. If you visit, you can still see the cell where she passed her final days.

* The bad botch of this job led Lincolnshire officials to audition for their next execution a local cobbler and amateur noose enthusiast destined to revolutionize the British hanging with his scientific approach: William Marwood.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Women,Wrongful Executions

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2001: Kojiro Asakura, frustrated realtor

Add comment December 27th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2001, 66-year-old Kojiro Asakura was executed by hanging at the Tokyo Detention House for the murders of almost an entire family eighteen years before.

In June 1983, he had killed Akira Shirai, age 45, and Shirai’s wife, one-year-old son and two daughters aged six and nine by beating them to death with a hammer and an ax. He then dismembered three of the bodies.

The only survivor was the family’s oldest daughter, age ten, who was away at summer camp at the time of the murders.

The motive for Asakura’s crimes lay in frustrations related to his job. A property assessor, he had bid successfully on the Shirai family’s house and land in Tokyo when they came up for public auction. He planned to resell the property at a profit, but the deal stalled when the Shirais refused to move out. Four months after the auction, they were still residing in the house illegally.

Enraged, Asakura beat the wife and children to death, then waited for the husband to come home and killed him too.

At his trial, the defense argued insanity or at least diminished capacity, pointing out that normal, sane people do not go on gruesome murder sprees. The court didn’t buy it.

Asakura was hanged on the same day as another Japanese multiple murderer, Toshihiko Hasegawa, who breathed his last at the Nagoya Detention House. These were the first executions in Japan in eleven months, and thirteen months more would pass before anyone else stepped up to the scaffold.

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1942: Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle, Darlan’s assassin

3 comments December 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1942, just two days after he had assassinated Admiral Francois Darlan, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle was shot by the Vichy army in Algiers.

Despite its shorthand reputation as a Nazi puppet, Vichy France — especially in 1940-42 — was a more nuanced animal that’s enjoyed increased study of late. Vichy controlled southern France under the obvious pressure of the next-door German occupation and effected state collaboration with Berlin including deportations, but it also maintained diplomatic relations with the U.S. Vichy France even shot German spies.

Vichy was one contender among several for political legitimacy in the aftermath of France’s disastrous 1940 defeat at German hands. The most obvious (and here, topical) rival was de Gaulle’s Free French.


Appropriately, the classic film Casablanca premiered in November 1942, featuring Claude Rains as the unprincipled Vichy Captain Renault. The film’s pro-Free French, anti-Vichy slant was not, however, representative of American foreign policy at the time.

This was the background when, in 1942, the US spearheaded Operation Torch to invade Vichy-controlled French North Africa. “This is not the end,” Churchill epigrammed of the Torch landings. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”* (Correction: Churchill actually said this in reference to the November 1942 Battle of El Alamein, as a very gracious comment observes.)

At the time of that operation, Admiral Darlan happened to be in Algiers. He was the former number two man in the Vichy government, but also a guy whose cooperation with the Nazis had been half-hearted … which is the reason he was the former number two man.

Darlan nevertheless remained the chief of the Vichy armed forces, which meant that it was worth the Torch commanders’ while to come to an arrangement with him when Darlan proved amenable to cooperation.

They cut that deal. Darlan shut down armed resistance and took Vichy North Africa over to the Allies’ side. (He had, indeed, hinted previously to American diplomats that he was prepared to switch sides; see Arthur Funk, “Negotiating the ‘Deal with Darlan'” in Journal of Contemporary History, April 1973.) In exchange, the Allies installed him as High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa — big man on campus for French North Africa.

Like all good compromises, it satisfied nobody.

De Gaulle was enraged: a Vichy official remained in charge of a Vichy state now under Allied auspices. Would Allied recognition set Darlan up to direct France’s postwar direction?

Equally pissed by the defection, Hitler triggered the German contingency plan to occupy Vichy France.† This is why the “especially in 1940-1942″ proviso above: after Operation Torch, Vichy France had no independent military muscle, and was significantly more beholden to Nazi Germany.

Back in North Africa, we finally come to our date’s principal.

A 20-year-old student of monarchist and anti-fascist political proclivities, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle (English Wikipedia entry | French) decided with a couple of friends to cut the Gordian political knot that Darlan’s adoption had created.

Bonnier de La Chapelle drew the short straw (literally, they drew straws) for the privilege/responsibility of murdering the Vichy admiral.

Officially, the young man acted alone. Unofficially, there’s been no end of speculation as to the secret intrigues at work. Nobody’s really clear on exactly how murdering Darlan was supposed to advance the gunman’s supposed agenda. And the Vichy French disposed of the killer with suspicious haste.

Just after lunch on December 24, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle surprised Darlan upon the latter’s return to his study and shot him through the mouth and torso at point-blank range. He was arrested attempting to flee.

The very next evening, he was condemned by a tribunal at Algiers. There was already a coffin on order before that body gaveled into session.

For some reason, the condemned thought his perceived service to the nation would out. “They will not shoot me. I have liberated France,” he assured his confessor. “The bullets will be blank cartridges.” They weren’t. Churchill recorded that Bonnier de La Chapelle was “surprised to be shot.”

Darlan was laid to rest later that morning at a dry-eyed requiem service. One British intelligence officer remembered that Darlan’s “murder fell like a stone into a small pond and the ripples were only brief. It was as if Darlan had never been.” (Source for the quotes in the last two paragraphs)

Henri Giraud, a French general who escaped German custody and took refuge in Vichy France — Vichy refusing to return him to the Germans, who openly intended to kill him — succeeded Darlan’s command of the now-Allied-aligned French North African forces and maintained the objectionable Vichy institutions. He joined the Allied Casablanca Conference a few weeks later. Giraud had already secretly arranged with the Allies to take exactly this position and had repaired to North Africa in anticipation of the invasion before being aced out by Darlan.

Giraud’s Vichy North African government gradually increased cooperation with de Gaulle’s Free French; the two eventually co-founded the French Committee of National Liberation, which de Gaulle, of course, eventually took control of.

In 1945, a postwar appeals court posthumously reversed Bonnier de La Chapelle’s conviction — on the grounds that he’d pulled the trigger “in the interest of liberation of France.”

* Stalin, whose Red Army was then fighting the Wehrmacht tooth and claw at Stalingrad, begged to differ. He’d been imploring the western allies to open a second front, and was none too impressed with their calculation that they weren’t ready to invade continental Europe in 1942. “A man who was not prepared to take risks could not win a war,” Stalin griped to Churchill.

** One knock-on effect of Operation Torch: the Germans reinforced North Africa against the Allies’ imminent push. It was in this campaign that future Hitler almost-assassin Claus von Stauffenberg lost a hand and an eye, leading to his transfer back to the Berlin desk job that would give him his opportunity to try to kill the Fuhrer.

† This resulted in Vichy France’s gesture of resistance, scuttling the Toulon fleet to keep it out of German hands … although this also irritated de Gaulle, who wanted the fleet to defect to North Africa instead.

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1635: Hester Jonas, cunning-woman

Add comment December 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1635, the aged cunning-woman Hester Jonas was beheaded as a witch in the city of Neuss.

Torture chair-illustrated title page of Hetty Kemmerich’s study of German witchcraft prosecutions, including but not limited to Hester Jonas’s. Sagt, Was Ich Gestehen Soll! has not been translated from German, but is available from Amazon.de.

Jonas (English Wikipedia entry | German), one of the better-known German witch-hunt victims, was an epileptic midwife who knew her way around the mandrake.

She was around 64 years of age when longstanding rumors of her witchiness triggered her arrest in the Hexenprozesse-crazed atmosphere of the Thirty Years War. The city’s mayor came right out and accused her of taking the devil into her bed, signaling that Jonas would have a difficult time escaping the scaffold.

Although the accused denied the charges at proceedings in November, ten hours naked in a spike-studded torture chair secured the customary confession — in this case, to fornicating in the turnip field with a black man named “Hans Beelzebub” who gave her magical powers. (Source, in German)

She managed to escape confinement the very night after she made these “admissions” but was re-taken, and her attempts to repudiate her previous self-incriminations flogged out of her.

After the executioner struck off her head, burned her body, and scattered her ashes to the four winds, her husband got the executioner’s bill for 65 Thalers.

20th century Dusseldorf poet Peter Maiwald wrote a “Ballade von der Hester Jonas” in honor of our date’s victim. The German band Cochise released an interpretation of this ballad on its 1979 album Smoke Signals.

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1926: Petrus Stephanus Hauptfleisch, mother-murderer

Add comment December 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

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

At 7:00 a.m. on this date in 1926, alcoholic and all-around loser Petrus Hauptfleisch was hanged in South Africa for the murder of his elderly mother nearly two years earlier. The case is detailed in Rob Marsh’s book Famous South African Crimes, available to read for free here.

Hauptfleisch had lived with his mother well into adulthood. When World War I started, he joined the army and served in Europe for four years.

After his return to South Africa in 1919, he demonstrated signs of having grown up a bit: he got a job as a butcher, married and had a young child. He and his wife fought constantly, however. He had a violent temper and drank heavily, to the extent that eventually none of the local businesses would sell him liquor anymore.

Finally his wife left him and he moved back in with Mom, but he was abusive to her as well and over Christmas 1924 she had him arrested after he threatened to kill her.

But once he sobered up and was released from custody, Mom let him move back in. Perhaps she felt she had to, since Petrus was haupt-fleisch und blut. Whatever her reason, the sins of the son were soon visited upon the mother.

Hauptfleisch claimed his mother accidentally set the kitchen on fire on January 13, 1925 and burned to death. The autopsy, however, didn’t support his story: all indications were that Mrs. Hauptfleisch had been suffocated or strangled to death and then burned afterward. There was no sign of soot or ashes in her bronchial tube or lungs, strong evidence that she hadn’t been breathing when the fire started, and there were other indications of asphyxiation. The postmortem lividity indicated she’d been lying flat on her back at the time of death, not face-down as Hauptfleisch said he’d found her.

Authorities believed Hauptfleisch was driven to homicide partly because of greed (he was the sole heir to his mother’s £600 estate) and partly out of personal rancor over that whole arrest thing.

After he was convicted and the sentence of death was passed upon him, Hauptfleisch issued a statement acknowledging that he had not been a good son, but protesting his innocence of this “most dastardly” crime. He would maintain his innocence until he died.

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1711: Phebe Ward, Thomas Pritchet and John Matthews

2 comments December 22nd, 2012 Headsman

“Of these twelve Persons, 9 having obtain’d the Mercy of the QUEEN’s most gracious Reprieve (which I hope they will take care to improve) only 3 are now order’d for Execution.”

-Ordinary of Newgate

The three unlucky ones order’d for Execution on December 22, 1711, were these:

Phebe Ward was a young woman who had lately moved to London from Yorkshire … but not alone, as it turned out. She was pregnant by a Yorkshire lad whose marriage proposal she nonetheless spurned.

Ward got a maidservant gig in a London home, but vigorously denied her condition. Pregnant servants were liable to firing, though the Ordinary of Newgate says that Ward’s tried to offer hers good treatment and care for the little bastard. Ward stuck to her “I’m not pregnant” story, delivered the child, suffocated it, and threw it down a well.

Thomas Pritchet was a mere 16 years old but already had seven years service in the royal navy. A native son of the London proletariat, Pritchet had robbed two men (one upon the highway, another by burgling his house) not five weeks before his execution; at the gallows he insisted that these were his first forays into crime.

John Matthews was “born of good Parents” and “formerly liv’d like a Gentleman” in Wales, but having no profession the exhaustion of his revenues caused him to become a professional thief … specializing in the increasingly valuable 18th century status symbol, the wig.

He’d been pardoned for his crimes twice before, so this indictment for stealing 24 ounces of hair and two perukes sealed his fate.

We noticed yesterday the voice of the Newgate Ordinary. A generation on here, the former Ordinary Samuel Smith was long in the ground. His successor, Paul Lorrain had really figured out Smith’s profitable racket.

Lorrain banked a healthy £200 annually selling his Ordinary’s Accounts, which he standardized and padded out from Smith’s versions into six-page pamphlets.

The celebrated sincerity of every culprit’s dying conversion led a later wag to call the hanged “Lorrain’s Saints.” In Moll Flanders, published two years after Lorrain’s 1719 death, Defoe has an unnamed character of his office who seems clearly based on the late divine. Moll, like Defoe himself,* finds the Ordinary repulsive.

THE Ordinary of Newgate came to me, and talk’d a little in his way, but all his Divinity run upon Confessing my Crime, as he call’d it, (tho’ he knew not what I was in for) making a full Discovery, and the like, without which he told me God would never forgive me; and he said so little to the purpose, that I had no manner of Consolati|on from him; and then to observe the poor Creature preaching Confession and Repentance to me in the Morning, and find him drunk with Brandy and Spirits by Noon; this had something in it so shocking, that I began to Nauseate the Man more, than his Work, and his Work too by degrees for the sake of the Man; so that I desir’d him to trouble me no more.

It’s less certain that Lorrain’s ministrations were unwelcome to all of Newgate’s denizens, or that they were hypocritical or cynical on their own terms.

He preached a theology (surely requisite for one in his position) of a saving grace capable of overcoming the most dissolute life and appears every ounce in earnest in exerting himself for what he took to be the redemption of his charges. He reports preaching to this date’s trio that they ought “to implore it of that good and merciful God, who is always more ready to give, than Men can be to ask; and who (as he has declar’d) desires not the Death of Sinners, but that they should turn from their wicked ways, and live: i.e. that they would return to God by sincere Repentance, and Amendment of Life here, and so obtain (thro’ a lively Faith in Christ) an Eternal Life of Bliss and Glory hereafter.”

In the last prior hanging date before this one, Lorrain had found one seasoned burglar “obstinate” and plainly irritated by his ministrations.

“But I told him,” Lorrain related, “that I must not flatter him to the destruction of his Soul, and thereby bring Guilt upon my own. And therefore, I would not give over pressing him to make such a sincere Acknowledgment of his Faults, and give such Proof of his Repentance, as might rejoyce my Heart from the Satisfaction I should have, that this would procure Peace to his Conscience.

“Though you exclaim never so much against what I offer you, I am fully resolv’d to endeavour the Salvation of your Soul.”

Lorrain got his man. He did more times than not.

He plied even ready confessors for “Particulars” to ferret out their crimes — and sometimes, their accomplices. (Recall that London had no police force at this time.) Those who bent themselves to Lorrain’s appeals would expunge all their wrongdoing, embrace the ceremony of their own mortal expiation, purging themselves of their sins, supplicating heaven, announcing the justice of their fate and warning the onlookers against it. They would, so the Ordinary thought, be fit for divine salvation no matter how bloody their former deeds.

One other point on which we can’t help but feel some kinship to this industrious priest: in the best tradition of death-bloggers everywhere, this content so piously wrung from wicked hearts Lorrain did not scruple to monetize:

ADVERTISEMENTS.

ROBERT WHITLEDGE, who formerly lived at the Bible in Creed-Lane, is removed to the Bible and Ball in Ave-Mary-Lane near Ludgate, where all Booksellers and others may be furnisht with Bibles and Common-Prayers of all Sorts, with Cuts or without, Ruled or Unruled, Bound in Turky Leather or Plain. Mr. Sturt’s Cuts Curiously Engrav’d; also other fine Cuts fitted for all Sizes and Common-Prayers. The Welsh Bible, Welsh Common-Prayer, and Welsh Almanack. The Duty of Man’s Works of all Sizes. The Duty of Man in Latin. Latin and French Common-Prayers. Tate and Brady’s New Version of Psalms, with the New Supplement. Dr. Gibson on the Sacrament. The Statutes at large, in Three Volumes. Washington and Wingate’s Abridgment of them. The Lord Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, in Folio and Octavo. The New Translation of Æsops Fables. Also Bp. Beveridge’s Works, in 5 vol. And Dean Stanhope on the Epistles and Gospels, in 4 vol. All which Books and Cuts are likewise sold by J. Baker in Mercers-Chapel

Lately publish’d for the Use of Schools,

Vocabularium Latiale; or, a Latin Vocabulary in two parts. The First being a Collection of the most usual and easie Latin words, whether primitive or derivative; with their signification in English, after the order of the Eight parts of Speech, giving a Specimen of each, and most naturally shewing the gender, increase, declension and motion of Nouns and Pronouns, with the Conjugation-Preterperfect Tense and Supine of Verbs both Simple and Compound. The Second, shewing the variation and declining of all the declinable parts, both regular an irregular. By Tho. Dyche, School-Master in London, Author of a new Spelling-book, entitul’d, A Guide to the English Tongue. Printed for S. Butler, at Bernard’s-Inn-Gate, in Holbourn, J. Holland, near St. Paul’s Church-yard, and A. Collins, at the Black-Boy in Fleet-street. Price 1 s.

London printed, and are to be Sold by J. Morphew, near Stationers Hall.

* For more about Paul Lorrain (and Defoe’s loathing of him), see:

Robert Singleton, “Defoe, Moll Flanders, and the Ordinary of Newgate,” Harvard Library Bulletin, Oct. 1976.

Lincoln Faller, “In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976.

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1692: A batch at Tyburn, escorted by the Ordinary of Newgate

2 comments December 21st, 2012 Headsman

December 22 was an execution date at Tyburn in 1692, with eleven men and women put to death.

They were, as usual, physically escorted on the 22nd — and spiritually escorted in the days leading up to that black date — by the Ordinary of Newgate.

We have often referred to this character and, in the present series, cited him repeatedly.

But who was the Ordinary of Newgate? Why is he so omnipresent in our English hanging narratives?

This clergyman was appointed to London’s stinking prison to tend to the souls of its inmates, particularly those condemned to die.

Under the tenure of Samuel Smith, the Ordinary of Newgate began in about 1684* to put out a regular broadsheet published the day after London’s eight or so annual hanging-days. Laboriously titled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn, it was sold by street-peddlers for (at first) a penny.

A typical Ordinary’s account by Smith had a three-act arc:

  1. An account of the honored clergyman’s own sermonizing, even the literal day-by-day exhortations and their progress (or not) in bringing the condemned round to a satisfactory spiritual state. The Account for December 21, 1692, for instance, begins:

    THE Ordinary preacht several Sermons to the Condemed Criminals being Twenty One. The first was on the Lord’s-Day immediately before their Condemnation on the Monday following, from this Text, viz. The 19th. Psalm, the 12th. Verse. Who can understand the Errors of his Life? Cleanse thon me from my secret Faults. The Observation from the Words was this, That the smallest Sins even Errors in Opinion and Infirmities in our Obedience to God’s Laws, ought to be repented of, as needing pardoning Mercy.

  2. Biographical thumbnails of the condemned, of no regular format but often remarking the person’s age, profession, birthplace, and life circumstances … and always attentive to whether s/he had come by repentance. This is Samuel Smith’s take on one of the 11 hanged today:

    Robert Marshal: Condemned for Murthering William Curtys, in White-Chappel. He pretended now, as formerly, that he is blind, and Begged under that Disguise. But being denied Relief by Curtys, Marshal, with his Begging-staff, in both his Hands, struck him on the Head, and made a Fracture in his Skull, of which he died; and he immediately attempted to run away. He confessed on Tuesday, that though his Sight was not strong enough for Labour, yet he could see his Way, in Walking, so as to go safely. He was born in Jamaica, bred up a Sea-man . He was unwilling to give any Account of his Life, being very obstinate.

  3. The scene at Tyburn itself, with the Ordinary’s prayers and the public behavior and confessions of the doomed.

    They were fervently exhorted to Confess their Faults, the Effects of which had brought them to such disgrace: After which the Ordinary took great pains with them in Prayer, and other suitable Applications, to bring them to a sense of the near approaches of Death; to which they adher’d, and joined in the Prayers; and singing of a penitential Psalm in as fervent a manner as could be reasonably expected from Persons of so mean Education, as were the most of them. They lamented their dismal Fall, desiring all Spectators of such a Tragedy to be warn’d by them, &c.

    As to the Particulars of their Confessions. they did not much enlarge themselves; only the Blind Man was penitent, and desired all Persons to take warning by him; owning that he could see; hoping God would forgive him all his Offences, &c.

In the 18th century these hang-day reports would expand even further.

For historians these records, formulaic as they are, remain “a unique and inestimable source of knowledge of the poor people who were hanged.” (Linebaugh).

For the Ordinary’s contemporaries, they were something else besides: the voice of authority on “the Malefactors,” their usual submission, the facts of their lives and the expected public lessons of the crimes and punishments.** Certainly the Ordinary was at pains to assert his “official” status; in the Account at issue for this date’s hanging, he appends the notice,

Whereas there formerly have been, and still are, several False Accounts in Print, in relation to the Condemned Prisoners; and particularly, this very Session, that Robert Marshal, the Blind Beggar, was Executed two Days since; which is utterly false: The Ordinary thinks it necessary to acquaint the World, (to prevent the like for the future,) that no true Account can be given of the Condemned Prisoners Behaviour, Confessions, and Last Dying Speeches, which is not Attested under his own Hand.

Accept no substitutes!

The Ordinary had good reason to defend his position, for the Ordinary’s own livelihood depended upon his marketing them. This was naked entrepreneurship, direct to Smith’s pocket, and his product stood in competition with every other scandal-sheet hawker crowding the gallows.

Nor was the printed word the only way to monetize the office of Ordinary. In an environment when many people were condemned to death and many were pardoned, Smith was accused of shaking down prisoners to intervene for more lenient treatment.

For instance, in this wonderfully vicious send-off to the cleric after he died in 1698, satirist Thomas Brown accuses Smith (in the bolded passage) of taking payola to help illiterate prisoners claim benefit of clergy — an anachronistic legal mechanism wherein a condemned first-time offender could escape the noose by showing that he could read. (The loophole was reformed in 1706 to eliminate the reading test entirely, although this also came with making many offenses no longer “clergyable” at all.)

An Elegy on that most Orthodox and Pains-taking Divine, Mr. Samuel Smith, Ordinary of Newgate, who died of a Quinsey, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th of August, 1698.

Tyburn, lament, in pensive sable mourn,
For from the world thy ancient priest is torn.
Death, cruel death, thy learn’d divine has ended,
And by a quinsey from his place suspended.
Thus he expir’d in his old occupation,
And as he liv’d, he dy’d by suffocation.
Thou rev’rend pillar of the triple-tree,
I would say post, for it was prop’d by thee;
Thou penny-chronicler of hasty fate,
Death’s annalist, reformer of the state;
Cut-throat of texts, and chaplain of the halter,
In whose sage presence vice itself did faulter:
How many criminals, by thee assisted,
Old Smith, have been most orthodoxly twisted?
And when they labour’d with a dying qualm,
Were decently suspended to a psalm?
How oft hast thou set harden’d rogues a squeaking,
By urging the great sin of Sabbath-breaking;
And sav’d delinquents from Old Nick’s embraces,
By flashing fire and brimstone in their faces?
Thou wast a Gospel Smith, and after sentence
Brought’st sinners to the anvil of repentance;
And tho’ they prov’d obdurate at the sessions,
Couldst hammer out of them most strange confessions,
When plate was stray’d, and silver spoons were missing,
And chamber-maid betray’d by Judas kissing.
Thy christian bowels chearfully extended
Towards such, as by their Mammon were befriended.
Tho’ Culprit in enormous acts was taken,
Thou would’st devise a way to save his bacon;
And if his purse could bleed a half pistole,
Legit, my lord, he reads, upon my soul.

Spite of thy charity to dying wretches,
Some fools would live to bilk thy gallows speeches.
But who’d refuse, that has a taste of writing,
To hang, for one learn’d speech of thy inditing?
Thou always hadst a conscientious itching,
To rescue penitents from Pluto’s kitchen;
And hast committed upon many a soul
A pious theft, but so St. Austin stole:
And shoals of robbers, purg’d of sinful leaven,
By thee were set in the high road to heaven.
With sev’ral mayors hast thou eat beef and mustard,
And frail mince-pies, and transitory custard.
But now that learned head in dust is laid,
Which has so sweetly sung, and sweetly pray’d:
Yet, tho’ thy outward man is gone and rotten,
Thy better part shall never be forgotten.
While Newgate is a mansion for good fellows,
And Sternhold‘s rhimes are murder’d at the gallows;
While Holborn cits at execution gape,
And cut-purse follow’d is by man of crape;
While Grub-street Muse, in garrets so sublime,
Trafficks in doggrel, and aspires to rhime;
Thy deathless name and memory shall reign,
From fam’d St. Giles’s, to Smithfield, and Duck-lane.
But since thy death does general sorrow give,
We hope thou in thy successor will live.
Newgate and Tyburn jointly give their votes,
Thou may’st succeeded be by Dr. Oates.

* There are irregular Smith accounts from the late 1670s (he took over the position in 1675) as he felt out the genre, but he only institutionalized the periodical in the mid-1680s.

** Smith and all the Ordinaries harp endlessly on what amount to “gateway crimes”: idleness, drunkenness, bad company, and especially (as our satirist observes) breaking the Sabbath. They’re constantly inveigling prisoners to warn the execution crowd against these vices.

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1704: John Smith, peruke-maker and highwayman for a week

5 comments December 20th, 2012 Headsman

On his date in 1704, John Smith was hanged for a career in highway robbery that lasted all of one week and markedly wanted for subtlety.

Smith was talked into stealing a mare with a buddy. (In this enterprise, Smith leaned up against the actual Tyburn gallows while lying in wait. He was almost scared straight by the spook of of it, until his friend prodded him, “What matters, it, Jack? It is but hanging, if thou shouldst come to that.”)

Once Jack crossed the line, he couldn’t get enough.

The very next day he took the hot mare out for a spin and boosted three stagecoaches, and then hit three more stages the day after that. In all, in his short career, he raided nine stage-coaches, a hackney-cab, and the carriage of one Thomas Woodcock.

This last gentleman took his servant and stalked Smith to a forest hideout, where the inexperienced robber surrendered meekly, many of the proceeds of his spree being found still upon him.


Jack Smith’s impetuous turn to the road was still the more questionable given that he wasn’t a fringe-of-society type. The executioner who turned him off this date thinned the ranks of the artisans who crafted London society’s wigs … and just at the moment this industry was really taking off.

A fashion trend that jumped that channel from France — as did the sobriquet “peruke” for the most cumbersomely outlandish of the genre — wigs went wild under William and Mary and Queen Anne.

They multiplied for every rank, profession, and occasion, differentiated by a bewildering proliferation of colorful names. There’s the Allonge and the Grecian fly wig, the Rhinoceros and She-Dragon, the riding wig and the nightcap wig, the Jansenist, the Gregorian, the Adonis, the Corded Wolf’s-Paw, and even one called the Tyburn Scratch; wigs with long braided tails and others with practical bobbed cuts; modest affairs for scrappy apprentices on the come and ludicrous gigantic heaps of bedizened white curls for the louche nobility’s opera-box peacocking and the long plaited-tail “Ramillies” named after the battle the Duke of Marlborough won with this model on his dome. Even a proper thief needed a wig, and certainly the artifacts’ value was sufficient to endear them as a frequent object of hanging crimes.

FASHION in ev’ry thing bears sov’reign sway,
And Words and Perriwigs have both their day.
Each have their purlieus too, are modish each
In stated districts, Wigs as well as Speech.
The Tyburn Scratch, thick Club, and Temple Tye,
The Parson’s Feather-top, frizz’d broad and high!
The Coachman’s Cauliflow’r, built tiers on tiers!
Differ not more from Bags and Brigadiers,
Than great St. George’s, or St. James’s stiles,
From the broad dialect of Broad St. Giles.

The most recognizable legacy of the wig-craze is, of course, the ceremonial coiffure donned by judges and barristers in British courtrooms for centuries thereafter.

It was, indeed, right around the time of Smith’s hanging (circa 1705) that the preference of the rich and powerful for wig-wearing ensconced the accessory in the realm’s courtrooms, where they soon became utterly iconic. If John Smith could have just laid off the stickups, he might have met his judges as clients instead.

“Has not your Red hanging-individual a horsehair wig, squirrel-skins, and a plush-gown; whereby all mortals know that he is a JUDGE?” Carlyle remarked in the 1830s — by which time wigs were already passe outside the courtroom.

But as tradition sanctified their place at the bar, the judicial wig long outlived its parent trend and is only now, and only gradually and grudgingly, giving way.

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1684: Jane Voss, narrow escapee

1 comment December 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1684, Jane Voss was hanged

We pass over for this entry her four companions in death: a couple of forgettable gentleman highwaymen; a murderer fled to the continent; a coiner named D’Coiner.

Each a fellow with an interesting tale of his own, no doubt, but for Jane Voss one notices her perpetual proximity to the gallows. It’s a reminder that for a certain class of person, the omnipresent prospect of a sudden trip to the hanging-tree — intended as a mortal terror — was little but the everyday circumstance of a life nasty, brutish and too often short.

A chapbook of the day’s crop* records that the notorious Jane’s “frequent felonies and often Convictions have made her known to most in and about London, she having been above 12 times in Newgate, and several times Condemned to dye.”

She fortuitously escaped such a fate as an an accessory to Thomas Sadler’s theft of the High Chancellor’s ceremonial mace eight years before.

Not being a principal culprit in that escapade, Voss got off with penal transportation, only returning (at least insofar as the English authorities knew) legally after her transportation term had ended.

Our correspondent alleges that “no less than 7 Persons, whom had passed for her Husbands, have at several times been Executed for Robberies, &c.” Indeed, one notorious highwayman named John Smith (alias Ashburnham) hanged earlier in April 1684 had made a point of asking the Newgate Ordinary to send word to Jane Voss to cool it lest she follow him.

Alas, it was right about this time that Jane snatched her last silver tankard. She’d had too many reprieves to escape this time … save for the mandatory stalling mechanism of pleading her belly.**

* “True account of the behaviour, confessions, and last dying words, of Capt. James Watts, Capt. Peter Barnwell, Daniel D’Coiner alias Walker, Richard Jones, and Jane Voss alias Roberts,” 1684. (via Early English Books Online)

** Here’s Jane Voss’s Old Time Restoration England Pregnancy-Simulating Potion: drink “a Gallon of New Ale and Honey” before examination. Use as needed.

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1691: Eleven at Tyburn

1 comment December 18th, 2012 Headsman

“Having Intangled themselves in the snares of Death, by their Dissolute Practices, against all the warnings of Publick Justice on other Criminals,” as the Ordinary’s Account puts it, 11 men and women “provokt the Lord to set them out, as monuments of his present severe, yet Righteous Judgement” and therefore hanged together on this date at London’s Tyburn gallows.*

Murderers (and -esses)

William Harsey was taken literally red-handed, found by the St. Katherine’s watch passed out drunk, still gripping a bloody knife. He’d wetted the blade in three different bodies that night, one of them his good friend (also drunk). Two died; one survived to testify against Harsey.

Mary Mott‘s infant son was found lying dead in a gutter on her rooftop, by a laborer working on the chimney. She claimed it was stillborn, but was unable to prove it: the presumption in such instances went against the mother, on the grounds that every infanticide would simply claim stillbirth otherwise.

Thieves

William Smith “said that he was guilty of all sins except Murther, he named Sabbath breaking, Drunkenness, and Uncleanness.” John Barret, a burglar, copped to the same trio of gateway sins.

Less repentant were two other robbers who had no use for the Ordinary’s god-bothering, to the detriment of their bloggable biography: Richard Johnson, who “was not concerned for his bad Life, and withdrew himself from Chappel,” and Anne Miller, who “refused to come to the Chappel, saying she was a Papist.”

Posterity has much more on Mary Jones, a scarf-maker whose lover squandered all her revenues and drove “Moll” to make an illicit living by the dexterity of her fingers. Having been branded on the hand for picking the royal chocolatier’s pocket, Jones turned to the boom trade in shoplifting London’s growing traffic of valuable little textiles like stockings and lace.

She must have had no small gift for the five-fingered discount as she practiced it for 3-4 years. “She was apprehended for privately stealing a piece of satin out of a mercer’s shop on Ludgate Hill, whither she went in a very splendid equipage and personated the late Duchess of Norfolk, to avoid suspicion of her dishonesty; but her graceless Grace being sent to Newgate, and condemned for her life at the Old Bailey.”

Hanging day would hardly be complete in the late 17th century without a highwayman like William Good, who with a buddy (uncaptured) carriage-jacked a gentleman on the London-Hackney road and made off with the 12-Days-of-Christmas-like trove of “a Dyaper Napkin Value 12 d. Twelve Larks, Two Ducks, and an Embroidered Wastcoat.”

Where Good hangs, there will you also find Malice — Humphrey Malice, to be exact, “Condemned for Robbing a Gentleman in Chelsy Field” in which crime he nevertheless enjoyed “no share in the spoil.” His better remunerated (and less interestingly named) confederate Edward Booth hanged with him. The gentleman in question was Malice and Booth’s second victim of the night, the first having been a more working-class sort who was stripped stark naked and could still only produce eight coppers. Malice and Booth gave him a vengeful thrashing for their trouble and told him “that the next time he went abroad, he should put more Money in his Pocket.”

Thomas Taylor, a parson’s son “addicted to idleness,” was in fact quite industrious when it came to robbery. There’s a story from his career of engineering a buffoonish caught-in-the-town-pillory routine to distract a crowd of yokels while his pickpocket buddies plucked them clean. His fatal crime was an even more audacious twist on the same, in which Tom, acting alone this time, fired a barn, then joined the resulting rescue scramble and made off with a trunk full of plate and £140 cash. He would later admit this was not the first time he had used this gambit.

The arson was the source of his condemnation, but we could not pass over the Newgate Calendar’s remembrance of a different and dreadfully amusing larcenous exploit … which also goes to show the very private, and very punitive, nature of crime prevention in those days.

Taylor being pretty expert at picking of pockets, he set up for himself; and one day going to the playhouse in Drury Lane, very well dressed, he seated himself by a gentleman in the pit, whose pocket he picked of about forty guineas, and went clean off. This good success tempted Tom to go thither the next day in a different suit of clothes, when, perceiving the same gentleman in the pit whose pocket he had picked but the day before, he takes his seat by him again. The gentleman was so sharp as to know his face again, for all his change of apparel, though he seemed to take no notice of him; whereupon putting a great quantity of guineas into the pocket next Tom, it was not long before he fell to diving for them. The gentleman had sewed fishing- hooks all round the mouth of that pocket, and our gudgeon venturing too deep, by unconscionably plunging down to the very bottom, his hand was caught and held so fast that he could in no manner of way disentangle it.

Tom angled up and down in the pocket for nearly a quarter of an hour; the gentleman, all the while feeling his struggling to get his hand out, took no notice, till at last Tom, very courteously pulling off his hat, quoth: “Sir, by a mistake, I have somehow put my hand into your pocket instead of my own.” The gentleman, without making any noise, arose and went to the Rose Tavern at the corner of Bridget Street, and Tom along with him, with his hand in his pocket, where it remained till he had sent for some of his cronies, who paid down eighty guineas to get the gudgeon out of this dry pond. However, the gentleman, being not altogether contented with this double satisfaction for his loss, most unmercifully caned him, and then turning him over to the mob, they as unmercifully pumped him and ducked him in a horse-pond, and after that so cruelly used him that they broke one of his legs and an arm.

Taylor, the Ordinary reported, “behaved himself very undecently and unhandsomely, all the way from Newgate to Tyburn.”

* A good round number: it was Tyburn’s second 11-spot of the year.

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