Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'
November 22nd, 2014
On this date in 2011, China executed a karaoke bar proprietor in Zhejiang province for a rape spree.
Not to be confused with his documentary filmmaker countryman, Chen Weijun “targeted young innocent middle-school girls after seducing them with money and violently threatening them,” said the official report. “He raped 14 Lishui middle-school girls, including nine children, in cars, karaoke bars, hotels and underground parking lots.” (The legal definition of a “child” here is 14 years old, which is why some students were and some were not.)
The crimes occurred from 2007 to 2009, but the context of the execution itself was a whole spate of recent unsettling special-victims-unit stories … like the peasant who raped over 100 women, and the firefighter who kept six sex slaves in his basement dungeon.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex
Tags: 2010s, 2011, chen weijun, karaoke, lishui, november 22
November 21st, 2014
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.
Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.
She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.
In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.
Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.
Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.
The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.
See Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Other Voices,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,USA,Women
Tags: 1720, 1721, christiana bell
November 20th, 2014
On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republicans shot Don José Antonio Primo de Rivera y Sáenz de Heredia, 1st Duke of Primo de Rivera, 3rd Marquis of Estella, Grandee of Spain.
The son of Spain’s 1920s dictator, Primo de Rivera founded in 1933 the Falange, Spain’s native fascist movement.
At the October 29 founding convention that year at Madrid’s Theatre of Comedy, Primo de Rivera scathingly pilloried the wan democratic rituals that coming years’ conflict would sweep aside. “The most ruinous system of wasted energy,” he jeered at liberal democracy, where men with leadership waste their talents in hollow electoral hustling and parliamentary rigmarole while the nonsensical ephemeral whims of a formless plurality pass for the vision he attributed to the time before Rousseau ruined everything. “What alone mattered to the liberal state was that a certain number of gentlemen be sitting at the polling station, that the voting start at eight o’clock and end at four, that the ballot boxes not get smashed — when being smashed is the noblest aspiration of all ballot boxes.” (The full speech is available in Spanish here.)
Primo de Rivera espoused for Falangismo the same impulses — of unity, of destiny, of national rebirth, of the triumphant collective — that animated Europe’s similar extreme right stirrings in those years. Only 35 years before, Spain had lost her empire
In a poetic sweep we will raise this fervent devotion to Spain; we will make sacrifices, we will renounce the easy life and we will triumph, a triumph that — you know this well — we shall not obtain in the upcoming elections. In these elections vote the lesser evil. But your Spain will not be born out of them, nor does our frame for action reside there. That is a murky atmosphere, spent, like a tavern’s after a night of dissipation. Our station is not there. I am a candidate, yes, but I take part in these elections without faith or respect. And I say this now, when so doing may cost me every vote. I couldn’t care less. We are not going to squabble with the establishment over the unsavory left-overs of a soiled banquet. Our station is outside though we may provisionally pass by the other one. Our place is out in the clear air, beneath a moonlit sky, cradling a rifle, and the stars overhead. Let the others party on. We stand outside vigilant; earnest and self-confident we divine the sunrise in the joy of our hearts.
Unlike the Naziism in Germany or Fascism in Italy, Falangism never grew into a force capable of conquering state power itself. Just thirty-three months after Primo de Rivera’s founding address, the Spanish Civil War erupted. The Falangists’ alliance with Francisco Franco — after the war, they would be combined with the Carlists into the only legal political association* in Francoist Spain — spelled great gains for their membership rolls but it was still the General who called the shots.**
Primo de Rivera’s share in this alliance was a voluptuous cult of personality as Spain’s preeminent right-wing martyr, fine posthumous work if you can get it mitigated only by the necessity of undergoing the martyrdom. The fascist prophet was already in prison at the time Franco struck the first blow of the war: he’d been arrested in Madrid on weapons charges. From his cell he carried on a brazen correspondence with Nationalists conniving to subvert the hated Spanish Republic, and when his activities were discovered and prosecuted that autumn in light of Franco’s July revolt they could scarcely have been better framed to incur the utmost measure of judicial wrath.
In consequence of his martyrdom, November 20 remains down to the present a hallowed day for the far right in Spain.
“Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”) is the Falangist anthem; the lyrics are generally credited to Primo de Rivera.
* The Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, or “Spanish Traditionalist Phalanx of the Assemblies of National-Syndicalist Offensive” (FET y de las JONS) — or less exhaustingly, the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement).
** Primo de Rivera and Franco didn’t like each other much personally, either.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Nobility,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Shot,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1930s, 1936, falange, falangists, fascism, jose antonio primo de rivera, madrid, november 20, spanish civil war
November 19th, 2014
On this date in 1895, two outlaws hanged publicly at Las Vegas, New Mexico, for killing a rancher during a raid on his cattle earlier that year.
We will come soon enough to Jesus Vialpando and Feliciano Chavez, but their story and ours properly begins a bit earlier … with a gentleman named Vicente Silva.
From the San Francisco Call
, July 3, 1898 (via
Silva had struck silver and cashed his claim in for the proprietorship of a saloon in Las Vegas, NM where he tolled the vices of later prospectors and of the ranchers and herders who peopled the area.
In the 1880s the deposits were drying up and with them the tumblers at Silva’s well. Ever the enterprising businessman, he procured a remote ranch to use as the base for a fresh initiative: running by night a secretive gang that terrorized San Miguel county and neighboring Guadlupe, Mora, and Santa Fe counties, too. For a couple of years these villains had the run of unsettled territory’s rural places, and waylaid travelers or rustled livestock with near impunity — murdering when necessary and even brazenly “disappearing” some ranchers known to be too vigorous about defending themselves.
The Silva gang came unglued in the winter of 1892-93. Suspecting one of its number of preparing to expose him, Silva ordered the man done to death — and Pat Maes was efficiently lynched to a bridge in a driving snowstorm. Silva himself fled his legitimate persona in Las Vegas and embraced outlawry as a fugitive in the bush.
Having already proven his willingness to slay his own followers, Silva soon had to go even farther than that: in February 1893 he demanded that his cronies murder his (Silva’s) wife, and the wife’s brother — again for fear of betrayal. The men so tasked did carry out their orders, but, wary of the Robespierrian trend betokened by these purges, they also took the opportunity to murder Silva himself.
That scattered his associated desperadoes to the desert winds. Pursued by rewards on their heads — and no longer in mortal terror of the chief’s vengeance should they turn stool pigeon on their former mates to collect — many of the gangsters were rounded up in the years to come.
Our two characters, Vialpando and Chavez, numbered among Silva’s dispersed marauders and had managed to escape the most recent instance of a tattling comrade. Come the winter of 1894-95, two years on from Silva’s exit stage 6 feet under, these ex-henchmen still had their former liberty … and none of their former ease.
Staggering through another blizzard like the one that had fallen on poor Pat Maes so many moons before, they* came upon Lorenzo Martinez’s land and trespassed with famished gusto. They had soon made of one of Martinez’s cows a much-needed repast, but as they huddled around a fire to devour it in warmth, the rancher’s son Tomas arrived on the scene. Who knows but with what suspicion these parties eyed one another, and what guarded words they exchanged. Later Vialpando would explain through an interpreter that, catching glimpse of the man’s cartridge belt “I became afraid of him that he might be the owner of that animal that we had killed there,” and with familiar glances to Feliciano made a silent impromptu pact to kill Martinez before the rancher got a drop on them.
Four days later, Martinez’s faithful dog Gallardo — whom the raiders had also shot, but not managed to kill — turned up back at the family homestead half-frozen and matted in its own blood and all but dragged Martinez’s brother to the spot where Tomas’s cremated remains mingled with the carcass of the dead cow. The discovery was quick enough to put authorities on the right track, and they had Vialpando and Chavez in custody within a fortnight.
They offered only a feeble attempt at spinning the admitted homicide as “self-defense”. At the prisoners’ request, Governor William Thornton met personally with them in jail a few days before their hanging, where the doomed men begged for mercy “without pretending to give any reason why he should” grant it. (New Mexican, Nov. 14, 1895)
Around 6 o’clock on the morning of November 19, Vialpando was escorted alone to a one-man public gallows at an arroyo north of town. Wan and terrified, Vialpando had all he could do to keep his composure and made no statement before he was efficiently executed.
By 7 o’clock the sheriff’s party had returned to the jail for Chavez. Less unmanned by the occasion, Chavez had a rambling 18-minute address to the crowd from the gallows, translated on the fly from his Spanish by a handy interpreter, the substance of which was to vaguely distribute among the rest of his party enough responsibility for Martinez’s murder that he could complain about taking the punishment for it. At last, with the parting cry of “Adios, todos!”, Chavez too was hanged at 8 o’clock.
The men’s bodies were shipped a few miles down the way to their families in Romeroville, along with a few dollars in nickels they had accumulated from well-wishers while awaiting execution. A public subscription covered the cost of their burial.
* The party was four in all. Zenobia Trujillo and Emilio Encinias were present when Martinez found their party but were sent away before he was murdered; they were charged as accessories after the fact.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Mexico,Outlaws,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA
Tags: 1890s, 1895, feliciano chavez, jesus vialpando, las vegas, vicente silva
November 18th, 2014
On this date in 1329, Italian condottiero Alberghettino II Manfredi was beheaded in Bologna.
Fruit of the Manfredi family, the lords of Faenza. Posterity doesn’t know a tremendous amount about Alberghettino, but one can infer a certain state of mind from his actions. While dad ran Faenza, his brother Ricciardo was on the condottiero cursus honorum as the temporary captain of nearby Imola.
In the mid-1320s, Alberghettino got his Fredo Corleone on by allying with the lord of Forli, a Faenza rival, in a treasonable (not to say Freudian) plot to supplant his father’s position.
He enjoyed a temporary run of the place from 1327-28 but was ousted by papal troops.
Forced to retire to Bologna, he returned immediately to conspiring with an attempt to make Bologna’s first man L-o-u-i-s, as in the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV — at that moment barging about the Italic peninsula setting up antipopes.
That plot, too, failed. After that, on top of all his other woes, Alberghettino stood a head shorter than his more fortune-favored relations.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Soldiers,Treason
Tags: 1320s, 1329, bologna, coup d'etat, faenza, family, november 18
November 17th, 2014
On this date in 1326, Edmund FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel was beheaded at Hereford for his support of King Edward II, during the rebellion of Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.
Arundel’s relationship with doomed king had not always been so fatally chummy. That he turned out to be one of the few great nobles to back Edward against his wife’s adulterous coup d’etat would probably have surprised his own younger self — for 15 years before his execution he had joined the Lords Ordainers in opposition to Edward and hated royal favorite Piers Gaveston. Indeed, Arundel was one of the men who eventually condemned Gaveston to execution. Two years after that, he passed on aiding Edward’s Scottish campaign and the upshot of that was the great defeat of Bannockburn.
But these two foes were able to see their way to an arrangement as the 1310s unfolded, and Arundel married his son — the boy who would succeed as the next Earl of Arundel when our man got his head cut off* — to the daughter of the next royal favorite, Hugh Despenser.
This dynastic alliance with the man swiftly becoming the most powerful lord in England put Arundel firmly on Team Edward, with very lucrative results. When other nobles who hated the new favorite rebelled in the early 1320s, Arundel helped to put that disturbance down, and pocketed portions of the traitors’ forfeited estates for his trouble — including that of the attainted Mortimer himself.
These enemies were permanent.
Mortimer managed to escape the Tower of London and fled into exile, eventually taking up with the disaffected Queen Isabella, who was a French princess herself. When Mortimer and Isabella mounted an invasion in 1326, Arundell and his brother-in-law Surrey were the only earls to keep the king’s side. (Temporarily: Surrey made peace with the new regime when it carried the day.)
Captured by John Charleton, a Welsh landowner who’d been personally piqued by Arundel’s growing acquisitions in that region, he was hauled before Queen Isabella and put to summary execution. But not too summary: there’s a report by a chronicler that the “worthless wretch” wielding the blade required no fewer than 22 hacks to part head from shoulders.
Kathryn Warner’s excellent and venerable Edward II blog has a very thorough post on the Earl of Arundell as well as a separate one on John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever, two obscure courtiers who shared the same fate on the same occasion.
(Warner has also just recently — in October of 2014 — published her book about Edward II.)
* Technically Richard FitzAlan only became Earl of Arundel in 1331, when Edward III, having deposed the regime of his mother and Mortimer, re-granted the title.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1320s, 1326, coup d'etat, edmund fitzalan, edward ii, edward iii, hereford, hugh despenser, hugh despenser the younger, isabella of france, john daniel, november 17, piers gaveston, politics, robert de micheldever, roger mortimer
November 16th, 2014
The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.
Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.
Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.
But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).
In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.
In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.
At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Outlaws,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Scotland,Theft
Tags: 1700, 1700s, banff, jamie macpherson, november 16, poetry, robert burns
November 15th, 2014
On this date in 1591, the summary execution of Barnabe Brisson and two other French doctors of law signaled the beginning of the end of France’s Wars of Religion.
After the untimely death of Henri II in a freak jousting accident, his widow Catherine de’ Medici employed three frustrating decades shuttling the late monarch’s uninspiring offspring onto the throne only to see each in his turn die young and without issue. We are by these late years on to the last of Henri II’s sons — Henri III of France.
Actually, Henri wasn’t the last: just the last left alive. He had a younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who dropped dead in 1584 of malaria and left Henri III as the only Valois male. The heir presumptive after Henri III was his Calvinist brother-in-law Henri of Navarre. Spoiler alert: by the end of this post, Henri of Navarre is going to get there as King Henri IV.
The Catholic-vs.-Huguenot Wars of Religion had raged in France for many years but the last major installment of the bloody serial was the War of the Three Henrys: the two Henris aforesaid, plus the Duke of Guise, also named Henri — the standard-bearer of Catholic zealots.
Our present-day presumption of live-and-let-live spirituality was bequeathed from the Enlightenment only after it had been hard-won by centuries previous. In France of the 1500s, the most extreme (but by no means marginal) Catholic party saw the very existence of a Huguenot faction — and the fact that more moderate Catholic politiques were prepared to tolerate and treat with them — as an existential threat to the kingdom. Catholicism in the literal universal sense was intrinsic to France itself: if she should cease to be so, what would become of her? A 1589 pamphlet extolled what
an admirable thing [it is] to view the ardor and the devotion of everyone in France, the air resounding with prayer and processions of our youth who are purified by our prayers and by the common voice which is spread throughout this kingdom; we demonstrate that the benedictions and maledictions of a people have great effects.
With such great effects at stake, the pious ought not abide any fooling around with Providence. “If your brother, your friend, and your wife all of whom you hold dear wish to strip you of your faith,” wrote Louis D’Orleans in 1588, “kill them, cut their throats and sacrifice them to God.”*
This was a faction for whom Henri of Navarre’s prospective succession was absolutely intolerable, which makes it somewhat ironic that they themselves soon turned prospect into reality.
King Henri III was a Catholic himself, of course, and this irreconcilable Catholic League was part of what you might call his base. But though initially allied, the League’s attempts to dominate the young king led Henri III to execute a daring breakout: on December 23, 1588, he summoned the Duke of Guise to confer with him at the Chateau de Blois and there had his bodyguards murder Guise on the spot.
Just two Henries now …** (Executed Today’s court painter Paul Delaroche interprets that same scene here.)
The resulting fury of the Catholic League was so great that the king soon fled Paris and made common cause with Henri of Navarre. Now the civil war was the two Henris together — and the Catholic League opposing them. We come here to our date’s principal character, Barnabe Brisson (English Wikipedia entry | French), a distinguished jurist† in the Parlement of France. While most of this chamber followed the king out of Paris, Brisson chose to remain. “The Sixteen,”‡ the council of Catholic militants who now ruled Paris with the support of a populist militia, elevated Brisson to President of the Parlement.
In 1589 the Henris besieged staunchly Catholic Paris in an attempt to bring the civil war to a close. In a classic Pyrrhic victory, the League defeated this attempt by having a priest assassinate King Henri.
… and now we’re down to the last Henri.
While this action did break the siege, and avenge the murder of Guise, it made Henri of Navarre into King Henri IV. (Told you we’d get there.) The Catholic League’s attempt to recognize the new king’s uncle, a Cardinal, as the successor went nowhere at all, and at any rate this man himself died in 1590.
This succession greatly deepened the internal tension among Paris Catholics between the uncompromising men of the Sixteen and the moderate politiques, and the latter party’s interest in finding with the legitimate king a settlement that looked increasingly inevitable. After all, were these armed commoners really going to rule Paris indefinitely?
An armed march of the Holy League in Paris in 1590. (Anonymous painting)
The situation provoked the ultras among Paris’s ruling Sixteen to more desperate measures in a vain effort to maintain control. Their faction’s own post-Guise leader among the high nobility, the Duke of Mayenne, had refused inducements to seize the crown himself or to seat a sovereign provided by the League’s Hapsburg allies. He too was visibly sliding towards an accommodation with the heretic king. (He would reach one in 1596.) In much the same camp was an establishment figure like Brisson whose staying behind in Paris during the confused situation of 1588-1589 was scarcely intended to declare that his allegiance to creed surpassed all care for order. The man was a lawyer, after all.
During Mayenne’s absence from the capital in the autumn of 1591, the Sixteen mounted a radical internal coup and attempted to purge the city’s moderates. Brisson was arrested walking to work on the morning of the 15th and subjected along with two other jurists to a sham snap trial. All three were hung by lunchtime, and per a proposal floated among the council that afternoon were the next morning fitted with denunciatory placards and displayed on gibbets at the Place de Greve.
Barnabé Brisson, a chief traitor and heretic
Claude Larcher, an instigator of treacherous politiques
Jean Tardiff, an enemy of God and of Catholic princes
Their shocking exhibition was intended to incite a “St. Barthelemy des politiques” — a St. Bartholomew’s Day-esque pogrom against the politique moderates.
But the Sixteen had badly misjudged the mood of the city. The crowd beheld the mangled corpses silently, full of horror or pity — emblematic of the turning-point France was nearing in its interminable confessional strife. Despite the Catholic League’s strength in Paris, most Parisians were losing their appetite for bloodshed. The Duke of Mayenne was back in the capital by the end of the month and underscored the coming arrangements by seizing four of the Sixteen for summary execution themselves.
Two years later, Henri IV at last took Paris in hand by making a nominal conversion to Catholicism with the legendary (alleged) remark, “Paris is worth a Mass.”§
French speakers may enjoy this 19th century pdf biography of Brisson by Alfred Giraud.
* “Du Contemnement de la mort. Discours accomode a la miserable condition de ce temps” (blockquoted section) and Replique pour le Catholique Anglois, contre le Catolique associe des Huguenots (D’Orleans quote). Both via Dalia Leonardo in “Cut off This Rotten Member”: The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League,” The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002.
** Also of interest: this 1908 silent film of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored by Saint-Saens.
† Brisson’s dictionary of Justinian legal terminology remained in print until 1805. He also in 1587 produced a compilation of the laws of France as Le Code du Roy Henri III.
‡ The Sixteen were delegates of Paris’s quarters, assembled by the Duke of Mayenne. For detail on the composition and internal history of The Sixteen, see J.H.M. Salmon, “The Paris Sixteen, 1584-94: The Social Analysis of a Revolutionary Movement,” The Journal of Modern History, December 1972.
§ In the end, of course, an entirely unreconciled Catholic extremist assassinated Henri IV in 1610.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,God,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1590s, 1591, catholicism, french wars of religion, henri iii, henri iv, paris, place de greve, war of the three henrys
November 14th, 2014
On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.
Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.
Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was unusual, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.
This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*
In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the lone rider on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.
A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†
In a recent book
about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues
that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred
. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.
Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.
There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.
Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that
the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”
He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”
* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm
** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.
† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.
‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft
Tags: 1860s, 1864, franz muller, london, newgate, newgate prison, november 14, thomas briggs
November 13th, 2014
On this date in 1795, Donald McCraw was hanged in Perth, Scotland. A weaver by trade, McGraw joined the great human migrations the Industrial Revolution was stirring by migrating from the Highlands to Perth’s booming textile industry.
There, he laments in a bracingly emotional confession published as a broadside on the day before his execution,
[I] might have lived very comfortable, if it had not been for that curse to all peace and happiness, an overbearing temper in myself, and a fractious discontented temper in my unfortunate wife, [which] blasted all our conjugal happiness, so that instead of bearing with one another, as we are commanded in scripture 1 Pet. 3:7-11, our time was unhappily spent in mutual railings, upbraidings, threatenings, and even blows. In this most disagreeable life we lived for several years, but wickedness did not stop here, which may teach those who have the pattern of dreadful example before them, how dangerous a thing it is to live a wicked life, and how any vice persevered in grows in us like a second nature, and rare if it be ever left off.
I had long made a practice of beating my unhappy wife, custom made me almost think it no crime till it ended in the horrid crime of murder! And that at a time, which made it a double crime, when she had only one month between her and childbed.
Oh how unhappy have I been, to embrue my hands in the blood of my helpless wife, and my innocent unborn offspring. I no sooner committed the horrid crime, and saw her lying lifeless, than I was seized with such a trembling horror, that had I been lord of a thousand worlds, I would freely have given them all to have had the horrid deed recalled; but alas! it was done past recalling.
McCraw at first fled his crime but after running just a few miles he
began to reflect that I could not fly from the presence of an all-seeing God, nor run from the guilty conscience that now overwhelmed my heart; for should I fly to the uttermost corner of the earth, I would still be in his presence, and my guilt would accompany me. I therefore thought it would be better to give myself up to justice, and suffer what I justly deserv’d, than live with the pangs of a guilty conscience which are worse than death.
After hanging, McCraw was delivered to the city’s doctors for dissection.
On this day..
Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland
Tags: 1790s, 1795, david mccraw, november 13, perth