Posts filed under 'Death Penalty'

1708: Deborah Churchill, “common strumpet”

1 comment December 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1708, Deborah Churchill, alias Miller, was hanged at Tyburn.

Her crime was in the company she kept: although born into modest circumstances in Norwich, Deborah washed up in the underclass of that swelling metropolis on the Thames — leaving behind an abusive drunk of a first husband and a couple of children she’d had with him.

In London our principal kept what the Ordinary of Newgate would call “lascivious and adulterous” company with a young ruffian named Hunt who murdered another bloke while in Ms. Churchill’s company.

“Though this woman’s sins were great,” remarks the Newgate Calendar on her condemnation for the equivalent of felony murder for having been on the scene and failed to stop Hunt, “yet we must admit some hardship in her suffering the utmost rigour of the law for the crime of which she was found guilty.”

Those “great sins” consisted in a career in pickpocketing and sex work, at least one disposable “Fleet Marriage” on the side, not to mention an insufficient grasp of theology common to folk of all epochs and classes: “Whilst she was [in prison] she seemed to be really a pious woman; but her religion was of five or six colours, for this day she would pray that God would turn the heart of her adversary, and to morrow curse the time that ever she saw him.

“She at last got out of this mansion of sorrow also, but soon forgetting her afflictions she pursued her wickedness continually, till she had been sent no less than twenty times to Clerkenwell Bridewell, where, receiving the correction of the house every time, by being whipped, and kept to beating hemp from morning till night for the small allowance of so much bread and water, which just kept life and soul together, she commonly came out like a skeleton, and walked as if her limbs had been tied together with packthread.”

One might think that doing brutal labor under the lash on starvation rations was part of Deborah Churchill’s problem, not part of the solution, but the writer proceeds with sincere bewilderment, “Yet let what punishment would light on this common strumpet, she was no changeling, for as soon as she was out of jail she ran into still greater evils, by deluding, if possible, all mankind.”

Though the continued beatings curiously failed to improve morale, once Churchill was under sentence of death (whose execution she put off for the best part of a year by pleading her belly) she pleasingly played the penitent part assigned to the Tyburn gallows patient and enjoys a lengthy remembrance in the Newgate Ordinary’s documents as a result. She’s remarkably sanguine, one might think, about that whole “being hanged just for being in the vicinity of someone else’s murder” thing: of course, in Bloody Code London, many hanged for less than that. Churchill’s eyes seem to have been fixed by this moment upon salvation.

when she again reflected on her past Sinful Life and approaching shameful Death, she freely acknowledg’d, that tho’ she did not look upon herself to be guilty of Blood-shedding, yet she could not plead Innocence, but was a great Criminal before God, whose Pity and Compassion she implored.

Here she wept most bitterly, and shew’d great Signs of Repentance; saying, that she hoped God would be merciful to her, because she had ever since her Condemnation, endeavour’d to wean herself from the World in the abhorrence of her Sins, and preparing for a better Life. She wish’d all dissolute Persons would take Warning by her, and give up themselves no more to the foul Sin of Uncleanness.

When this Day of her Death was come, she was deliver’d out of Newgate, and carry’d in the Coach with me to the Place of Execution, where I attended her for the last time, and (according to my usual manner) pray’d and sung some Penitential Psalms with her, and made her rehearse the Apostles Creed. And after I had been a pretty while with her, exhorting her more and more to stir up her heart and mind to God, I took my leave of her; earnestly recommending her to the Divine Mercy, and wishing her a happy Passage out of this miserable World, and an endless Felicity in the next. Then she spoke to the Spectators to this effect: I desire all Persons, especially Young Women, to take Warning by me, and take care how they live; for my wicked Life has brought me to this shameful Death. I had a good Education, and was well brought up by my Parents; but I would not follow their good Advice and Instructions. I kept company with a Young-man, who committed the Murther for which I am here to suffer. I did not prompt him to it, nor was near him when he did it. But it was my misfortune to be concern’d with him: And God is just in bringing me to this Condemnation; for I have been a great Sinner, and very wicked. I desire those of my Acquaintance, that lead such a Life as I have formerly led, (and I see some of them here) I desire them, I beg of them, that they would take Warning by my Downfall, and amend their wicked Lives, lest they bring themselves to such an untimely End, and be undone for ever. These were her very Words, as far as I can remember; and she gave me a Paper containing the same; the substance of which I have (according to her desire) here deliver’d, whereby the Publick may avoid their being impos’d upon by any Sham-Papers relating to her Last Speech.

She desired the Standers-by to pray for her, That God would be pleas’d to be merciful to her Soul. And turning to one she call’d Nurse, she earnestly begged of her to take care of her poor Children, for whom she seemed to be very much concern’d.

Then she return’d to pray to God in these following Words, which she often repeated.

O God the Father, who hast created me, preserve and keep me. O God the Son, who hast redeemed me, assist and strengthen me. O God the Holy Ghost, who infusest Grace into me, aid and defend me. O Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity, Three Persons, and One God, assist me in this my last Trial, and bring me into the way of Everlasting Life.

O Blessed Jesus, wash away my Sins in thy Blood, and receive my Soul, Thou art my Helper and Redeemer, make no long tarrying, O my God. Say now unto my Soul, I am thy Salvation. Into thy Hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit; for thou hast redeem’d me, O Lord, thou God of Truth. Lord Jesus receive my Spirit. Amen. Amen.

When she had done speaking, she was allow’d some further time for her private Devotions. Then the Cart (into which she was put as soon as she came to that Place) drew away; and so she was turn’d off; she all the while calling upon God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations: Lord, have mercy upon me! Lord, receive me! Make haste unto me, O Lord! Lord, save me! &c.

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1678: Stephen Arrowsmith

3 comments December 16th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1678, one Stephen or Steven Arrowsmith was executed at Tyburn for the rape of a little girl the previous summer.

He was one of six people sentenced to hang that day, but four of them got reprieved. Arrowsmith and Nathaniel Russel, a convicted murderer, were the ones who had to swing.

The victim in Arrowsmith’s case, eight-year-old Elizabeth Hopkins, testified against her rapist in court, as did the child who walked in and saw Arrowsmith abusing the victim on July 7 of that year. Neither witness was properly sworn in. From the Old Bailey records:

The Girl that was ravished, being between 8 and 9, testified that he had had to do with her for half a year together every sunday, that she was hindred from crying the first time, by his stopping her mouth, and that he gave her money afterwards; and she never discovered it, till some of her friends observing her to go as if she were very sore, examined her, and by telling her she would be in danger of hanging in Hell, got her to confess, that the Prisoner was her fathers Prentice.

One Mrs. Cowel did testifie that upon observing her going, and other Circumstances, she did resolve to examine her, and made her confess, which she did, and being searched, was found shamefully abused, and sent to the Doctors to cure.

The like was attested by one Mrs. Sherwin, and by a Midwife, who said, she had got a very foul disease by it.

Arrowsmith’s defense was two-pronged:

  1. he hadn’t done it
  2. but if he had done it, Elizabeth had consented

The maid of the doctor who examined Elizabeth testified for the defense, saying she’d asked the victim why she hadn’t told anyone about the abuse, and Elizabeth answered that she took pleasure in it.

The jury was very reluctant to convict and, in fact, initially brought back a verdict of not guilty. And here the judge, a fellow with the Dickensian name Lord Chief Justice Scroggs, decided to become the prosecutor.

He had had already expressed his own “great Detestation and abhorrence of so Horrid and Vile an offense,” and demanded to know why the jury had acquitted Arrowsmith.

One of the jurors, an apothecary, ventured that he personally believed Elizabeth had consented to intercourse. Scroggs reminded this person that she was under age and so the issue of her consent was irrelevant.

Other jury members said they were bothered by the fact that almost all the evidence was hearsay and the only direct witnesses, Elizabeth and her friend, had not been sworn. Testily, the judge replied that a rapist was not going to commit his crime in crowd of eyewitnesses, and the only reason the two girls had not been sworn was because of their youth, but if the jury wanted them sworn in he was prepared to do that. Then he sent them back to re-think their verdict.

To further complicate matters, during the second round of deliberations a thoughtless officer of the court, charged with looking after the two child witnesses, brought both girls to the jury to talk to them in private. When Scroggs found out he quickly put a stop to this and had the bailiff thrown in jail, and the jury (who swore that this hadn’t been their idea) was allowed to continue its deliberations. Jurors later said the unauthorized meeting had convinced them of the girls’ honesty, and they returned with a verdict of guilty.

Kind of like Twelve Angry Men in reverse.

“The Criminal Trial Before the Lawyers,” (pdf) a paper published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1978, referenced the Arrowsmith case and Scroggs’s behavior. The paper’s author, John H. Langbein, tried to explain and defend the “judicial dominance” which might lead a modern reader to look askance at the fairness of the proceeding:

Hale’s treatise confirms this practice. “If the jurors by mistake or partiality give their verdict in court, yet they may rectify their verdict before it is recorded, or by advice of the court go together again and consider better of it, and alter what they have been delivered.” The tradition that the jury would lightly disclose the reasoning for a verdict became especially important in this situation, because it enabled the court to probe the basis of the profferred verdict, hence to identify the jury’s “mistake” and correct it. Thus, in the Arrowsmith case, the court discovered that the chemist’s opinion that an eight-year-old “could not be Ravished” had been influential, and the court refuted it…

Indeed, to this day in many countries, including the UK and the USA, a judge still has the right to overturn a jury’s decision if he or she feels the evidence did not support the verdict. This privilege is but rarely exercised.

At the gallows, just before his death, Arrowsmith wept and finally owned up to what he had done, saying he’d been a good person all his life until “Satan seduced him to this abominable wickedness.”

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1882: James Gilmore, the first hanged in Deadwood

1 comment December 15th, 2012 Headsman

In the 1870s, the illegal settlement of Deadwood, South Dakota attained pride of place among Old West frontier towns, complete with vigilante justice, lethal gunfights, and lucrative brothels.

Yet even though it was the source of South Dakota’s first legal hanging — Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer Jack McCall, who swung in Yankton — Deadwood itself did not play host to a proper judicial execution until this date in 1882.

The unhappy subject of this occasion? James Gilmore, a surly and perhaps deranged Ohioan who had senselessly gunned down a Mexican fellow-laborer named Bicente Ortez when both men were driving wagons on the Pierre-Deadwood route. Gilmore got upset when Ortez spooked his oxen, waited until the teams made camp that night, and then walked up to Ortez during dinner and shot him in the arm.

As the startled Ortez tried to flee, Gilmore pumped three more shots into his back.

(This was near Deadman’s Creek. How trite.)

Anyway, Gilmore’s ox-driving companions might have disliked Ortez themselves because they gave Gilmore a horse and a few bucks and, while his mortally wounded ex-comrade lay painfully expiring all the night long, let the shooter flee into the wilds. He’d be captured only months later, still driving livestock for some ranch.

“Is it for killing that son of a bitch Mexican?” he asked the marshals, incredulously.

(The prosecutor would close his trial with a charge to the jury that “in this land of the free, every man, regardless of color, creed, or other station in life was equal before the law, and the law protected with its folds, the plebian as well as the millionaires, and it knows no difference between the bull-whacker and the bonanza king.”)

Gilmore was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the autumn of 1881. However, the offender’s advocates pushed his appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Dec. 16, 1882), whose interest in the case derived from Gilmore’s nativity in Steubenvile, Ohio,

It is the opinion of many who knew him best, that James Gilmore had not a mind sufficiently well balanced to make him responsible for the terrible deed for which he was sentenced. Many stories are told of his strange freaks when a child (he is not yet twenty-two years old), which shows that he was of a very irritable temperament. At one time, fancying himself insulted by a citizen of this place [Steubenville], he attempted to shoot two fine horses belonging to the offender, with a small pistol… At another time he set the school building on fire and then placed himself in the most dangerous position he could find. He would frequently run away from home, and was found once by a brother, who is an officer in the United States Navy, in New York City.

Evidently, Gilmore’s non-naval other brother was a lawyer, who was able to corral testimony as to his sibling’s unsound mind from a variety of worthies who knew the unbalanced James in his youth.

But those appeals ultimately failed, as did Gilmore’s father’s simultaneous push in Washington D.C. (since the Dakotas were still federal territory) for executive clemency. Advised by Gilmore’s detractors that the condemned murderer “was a second Guiteau of a most diabolical character,” (Grand Forks Herald, Oct. 28, 1882), President Chester A. Arthur declined to interfere. Arthur was a guy who couldn’t be soft on Guiteaus.

Gilmore never denied responsibility for murdering Ortez, and at his (private) hanging he attributed the whole thing to his “bad temper” ever since his mother died when he was a child.

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1761: Jacinto Canek, Mayan revolutionary

1 comment December 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1761, King Canek Chan Montezuma was torn apart in the main square of Merida.

This august regnal name was asserted by a shaman previously known as Jacinto Uc de los Santos (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish). “Canek” echoed the history of the Mayan Itza kings, but it was Jacinto in using it for a single month’s insurrection that fixed its immortality.

“Memory is not just a tool of the spirit for calling up the past. Rather it is a skill which allows us in a moment to see what is in its essence outside of time. Memory allows us to rise to a state, not available to the mind alone, where everything is present.”

Jacinto Canek’s life followed by just a few decades Spain’s final conquest of the last independent Mayan peoples, the Itza, in the 1690s, complete with the usual religious assimilation, political control, and enslavement.

Canek, a commoner (perhaps an orphan) with some education, mounted in November 1761 a surprise revolt at the village of Cisteil (or Quisteil). There he deposed the parish priest and preached from the Catholic pulpit in the Mayan tongue:

My beloved children, I know you yearn to throw off the heavy yoke you have labored under since the Spanish subjugation … Spanish rule [brings] nothing but suffering servility.

About this same time, a Spanish merchant on his routine business rolled into town, blithely unaware of the gathering rebellion. Canek found the interloper insolent, and had him killed.

Crowned the new Mayan king and asserting semi-divine powers, Canek rapidly gained the support of neighboring towns. Within a week, he fielded 1,500 Mayan soldiers to defend Cisteil against a Spanish force sent to suppress them. Hundreds died in a bitter hand-to-hand battle on November 26, 1761, and Cisteil burned … but the Spanish won, and Canek, following a short flight, was captured with his remaining followers.

The Spanish governor of Yucatan, Jose Crespo (Spanish link), ordered Canek to a tortuous execution: tortured, broken, burned, and his ashes scattered. Many of his other followers were also put to death in various ways around the same time.


Mural of Jacinto Canek’s torture by Fernando Castro Pacheco at the Palacio de Gobierno in Yucatan, Mexico. (cc) image from Yodigo.

The Spanish hadn’t heard the end of this.

In the next century, Canek’s name was on the lips of Mayan descendants and mixed-blood Mestizos when they revolted again in the long-running (1847-1901, or even later: Quintana Roo maintained itself semi-autonomous until the 1910s) Caste War against domination by the European-identifying peoples of what was now the independent state of Mexico.

For decades, large areas of the Mayan Yucatan remained deadly to enter for any white-skinned outsider.

Today, it’s safe to check out the monumental tribute to Jacinto Canek on the Merida boulevard that bears his name.

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1889: John Gilman, tetchy landlord

2 comments December 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1889, 60-year-old John F. Gilman was hanged in Oregon for the murders of William and Elizabeth Eationhover (Eatenhoover, Etenhover).

Elizabeth and her husband Christopher were German immigrants. They arrived with their five-year-old son William in Coquille, Oregon in July 1888 and signed a five-year lease on farmland belonging to Gilman and his wife.

The Eationhovers built a small house forty yards from John Gilman’s house. They hadn’t lived there long before they began having disputes with Gilman about just what they could do on his land. Gilman wanted them to move and offered to cancel the lease, but the Eationhovers refused to budge.

Less than a year had passed before Gilman had decided the only way out of the situation was to cancel his tenants’ lease … on life.

He tried subtlety first, poisoning their food. That didn’t work and he was forced to use a more direct form of homicide.

On Saturday, July 12, 1889, Christopher was returning home after working all week at another, distant farm. When he reached the river, he noticed Gilman on the other side and asked him to row over and give him a ride. Gilman obliged and Christopher continued his journey home — but when he reached the corral, Gilman came up behind him and hit him in the head with one of his boat’s oars. He then pulled out a knife and stabbed him multiple times.

Gilman had made a miscalculation, though — one that saved Christopher Eationhover’s life. He’d been carrying two knives in his pocket, and one had a broken blade. He’d mistakenly pulled out the broken one, and it could not inflict fatal wounds.

As the two men struggled, ElizabethGilman’s wife came out of the house to break up the fight. Christopher then took the opportunity to get away. He staggered down to the river, rowed the boat across and went to get help.

By the time he returned with a posse, however, his wife and child had disappeared. The kitchen table was set for breakfast, and little William’s plate still had food on it, long since grown cold.

When the authorities arrived at the Gilman house, they found John Gilman in bed asleep. He hadn’t even bothered to change his bloodstained clothes. Arrested, he insisted he had no idea where the Eationhovers were or what had happened to them. He suggested that perhaps they’d followed after Christopher and got lost.

A search party found them the next afternoon, poorly concealed in a shallow grave. Nearby was another, empty grave, presumably for Christopher.

The two had died horrible deaths.

Elizabeth had been beaten on the arms, hips and face, and had a bad cut on the back of her head, but the actual cause of death was strangulation. Medical evidence indicated she’d remained alive for a time after the beating.

Five-year-old William had tried to run away, but his killer was too fast for him. He’d been strangled with a rope and his neck was broken.

Gilman would later confess to the crimes. He said he had beaten Elizabeth and then ran off, leaving her semi-conscious and helpless, to kill the child. He then returned to finish off Elizabeth. He claimed he’d strangled the victims (actually hanging William from a tree) because he didn’t want to leave blood evidence in the house.

While clearing out his conscience in this rummage sale (which sorely tempted lynch law), Gilman also confessed to another murder, that of George Morras in 1888. He later recanted his statements, but law enforcement believed he had in fact committed the crime.

John Gilman was indicted for two counts of murder. His wife, Fidelia, was charged as an accessory, but later acquitted. John’s insanity defense failed, and there was no appeal or executive clemency.

One final tragic detail in this very tragic story: on October 21, 1892, nearly three years after the hanging of the man who killed his family, Christopher Eationhover hanged himself.

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1996: Lem Tuggle, Tim Kaine client

4 comments December 12th, 2012 Headsman

Tim Kaine, who governed the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2006 to 2010 and was just last month elected to the U.S. Senate, had a different service to perform on this date in 1996.

Kaine saw his client, double-murderer Lem Tuggle, to the Virginia execution chamber on December 12, 1996.

In 1983, fresh off parole for a 1971 homicide, Tuggle raped and shot 52-year-old Jessie Geneva Havens.

“From past experience, I would like to talk to an attorney,” he told the officer who arrested him. “I’ll probably tell you the full story later.”

In this selfsame spring of 1983, 25-year-old Timothy Michael Kaine was receiving his J.D. from Harvard Law. He moved to Richmond, Va., with his classmate Anne Holton, daughter of the state’s former governor.

Kaine and Holton married in 1984.

This was also an eventful year for the now-twice-convicted killer Lem Tuggle: together with five other condemned inmates, Tuggle sensationally busted out of Mecklenburg Correctional Center — capturing several prison guards, making up a phony bomb threat, and simply strolling out the gates in their stolen uniforms during the confusion.

The “Mecklenburg Six”* cast a terrifying pall in the headlines of June 1984; it took weeks to recapture them all. Tuggle, sensibly, made a bid for Canada’s death-penalty-free soil, only sparing Ottawa a major diplomatic headache when he stopped to rob a Vermont diner for gas money and got arrested.

Kaine’s path was destined to cross with this notorious convict, but not for some years yet. In the meantime, the idealistic young J.D. in his first year at the bar was getting acquainted with death row when he accepted a pro bono legal appointment to represent condemned killer Richard Lee Whitley.

A lifelong Catholic who had spent a youthful finding-himself year working at a mission in Honduras, Kaine was (and remains) a death penalty opponent. This would later prove a sticky wicket, but mid-1980s Kaine didn’t have a career in politics on his radar, as evidenced by his distinctly impolitic remark that “murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County … and even the Spring Street Penitentiary.”

Later, when he was in politics, Kaine would tell a reporter profiling him during the 2005 gubernatorial campaign that he didn’t want the assignment but would have felt like a “hypocrite” to refuse it. The Commonwealth was less easily overcome than Kaine’s scruples, and Whitley died in Virginia’s electric chair on June 6, 1987.

“I just remember sitting on my back step late and just having a couple of beers and just staring out at my backyard,” Kaine recalled of the night he lost his client.

Having had this first taste of failing with a man’s life on the line while being publicly vilified for his work, Kaine signed on to represent Tuggle in 1989.

By the time Tuggle’s legal rope ran out in 1996, Tim Kaine was a 38-year-old Richmond city council member — the trailhead for his new and now-familiar career in politics.

As Kaine elevated himself into a statewide figure in the early 2000s, his death penalty position came in for some controversy which Kaine finessed by taking the position that while he himself opposed capital punishment, he would enforce the state’s death penalty law in his capacity as governor.**

Death penalty stuff has ample third-rail potential, but especially in Kaine’s gubernatorial race, his own personal legal work at the defense bar became fodder for some truly repellent attack ads by the mouthbreather lobby who tried to put Kaine personally on the hook for Tuggle’s crimes by virtue of having represented the man in court.

* The other five were Linwood Briley, James Briley, Earl Clanton, Willie Leroy Jones, and Derick Peterson. All of these men were also executed.

** That was indeed the case. Gov. Kaine commuted only one death sentence, that of Percy Walton, while allowing 11 others to go forward. D.C. sniper John Muhammad was the most notorious man with Kaine’s signature on his death warrant.

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1861: Christopher Haun, potter and incendiarist

Add comment December 11th, 2012 Headsman

Christopher Alexander (“Alex”) Haun was perhaps the finest potter in antebellum Tennessee. He never had the chance to become the finest in post-bellum Tennessee because he was hanged in Knoxville this date in 1861 as an incendiarist.

While Tennessee seceded with the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, East Tennessee was a Union stronghold. This was the native soil of pro-Union “War Democrat” (and future U.S. President) Andrew Johnson.

Soon after the war began, Unionist east Tennesseans started slipping over the border to northern-controlled Kentucky, where they hatched a plot to burn railroad bridges throughout East Tennessee.

Hand of Bridge

Besides being good fun, the conspiracy promised an effectual blow against the Confederacy inasmuch as the East Tennessee & Virginia and East Tennessee & Georgia lines constituted the South’s most reliable rail and telegraph link between its capital at Richmond, Va., and the Deep South. This plan’s author, Rev. William Carter, went to Washington and had his scheme personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Gen. George McClellan.

The rest of the plan called for the Union army to invade East Tennessee on the heels of the bridge-burnings and occupy the area. Just a few months before, McClellan’s troops had similarly occupied the pro-Union western mountains of secessionist Virginia, which is why there’s a state of West Virginia today.

But there’s no state of East Tennessee, is there?

The bridge-burning conspiracy would go down as one of the great, failed guerrilla operations of the war.

Burning Your Bridges

With authorization straight from the top, the conspirators got going. A Captain David Fry** was tasked with targeting the Lick Creek bridge, located in northeastern Tennessee† near the settlement of Pottertown, so named for the ceramics craftsmen attracted to the area’s excellent clay.

After dark fell on Nov. 8, 1861, the local Union sympathizers recruited to the plot — Christopher Haun among them — gathered at the house of a local landowner, Jacob Harmon, Jr. There they took a dramatic lantern-lit oath on the Union flag, each to “do what was ordered of him that night and to never disclose what he had done.”

Then a party of some 40 to 60 mounted raiders stole out for the Lick Creek bridge two miles distant.

Around 2 a.m., they overpowered the small Confederate sentry detail assigned to Lick Creek, and forced the sentries to watch as they fired the bridge. That same night, several other parties elsewhere along the line all the way down to Alabama also burned, or tried to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines.

These “deep-laid schemes … by an organization of Lincolnite traitors” (as the Knoxville Register accounted matters) brought a predictably furious Confederate response — and the audacious saboteurs would discover only after the fact that the planned East Tennessee invasion had been aborted by William T. Sherman without alerting his pyrotechnic fifth-column allies.

A Bridge Too Far

Within three days of the “treason,” East Tennessee had been clapped under martial law. A number of bridge-burners were also arrested (although many others escaped), and here the Lick Creek men would pay dearly for their recklessly humane decision to release their captured sentries. (pdf) As a result, several of them were captured in the days following their attack.

Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin had a ruthless order for East Tennessee’s military authorities.

I now proceed to give you the desired instruction in relation to the prisoners of war taken by you among the traitors of East Tennessee.

First. All such as can be identified in having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges. [emphasis added]

Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war.

Two men, William Hinshaw (often called “Hensie” in the period’s reports) and Henry Fry, were condemned by such a tribunal on Nov. 30 and immediately hanged — their bodies left exposed at the Greeneville Station for a day or more, until the stench became overpowering.

Haun was condemned on Dec. 10.‡ Confederate Brigadier General William H. Carroll telegraphed Benjamin for Jefferson Davis‘s confirmation of sentence.

The court-martial has sentenced A.C. Haun [sic], bridgeburner, to be hung. Sentence approved. Ordered To be executed at 12 o’clock tomorrow. Requires the approval of the President. Please telegraph.

Benjamin replied within hours, telling Carroll to make with the noosing.

Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge-burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.


Haun takes leave of his pregnant wife and four children before execution. Illustration from this 1862 propaganda volume by the Unionist publisher of the Knoxville Whig.

Six days after Haun hanged at Knoxville, the landowner who hosted the conspirators, Jacob Harmon, also went to the gallows, along with his son Henry. It seems someone in the incendiary party had carelessly dropped the name “Harmon” in conversation while the bridge sentries were in custody within earshot.

(Several others only narrowly avoided execution, or lynching, for the conspiracy. Given hundreds of other arrests of even merely suspect East Tennesseans and the very nasty feelings engendered by the Unionists’ attempt, it’s something of a wonder that only five were executed.)

Water Under the Bridge

Today, the Harmons are buried at Pottertown Harmon Historic Cemetery in rural Green County, Tenn., where a hexagonal monument commemorates all five executees (with an extra panel for summary text). There’s an annual ceremony there to commemorate the East Tennessee bridge burners.

Or, pay your respects any time by using the cemetery as the trailhead for the Civil War Bridge Burners’ Bike Ride (pdf). You’ll find the spot just off Bridge Burners Blvd.


View Larger Map

All the hanged incendiarists were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by Congress in 1862, a gesture of appreciation which also conferred on their heirs the right to survivors’ benefits.

In addition to the resources linked here, see Donahue Bible’s “Shattered like earthen vessels,” Civil War Times, Dec. 1997.

* Later to become the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railway, and then the Southern Railway, and then a big band hit.

**The intrepid Captain Fry would escape immediate capture, gather a few hundred Unionists as a guerrilla band, and eventually get caught, sent to Georgia, and condemned to death as a spy. Fry escaped by breaking out on the eve of his Oct. 15 hanging, in the company of some of the men arrested for the Great Locomotive Chase. He rejoined Union forces, was captured again, and survived the war, finally dying in 1872 … when he was hit by a train.

† The other bridges successfully torched by the conspiracy included two over the Chickamauga in southeastern Tennessee, and the theme of Civil War bridge-burning in that sector can’t help but suggest Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The other details are nothing alike, so Bierce’s story clearly isn’t about this incident.)

‡ The railroad bridge at Lick Creek was back in action by this time.

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1900: John Filip Nordlund, Mälarmördaren

Add comment December 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1900, John Filip Nordlund was beheaded with Albert Dahlman‘s axe at Sweden’s Västerås County Jail.

The second-last person executed in Sweden (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was the author of an infamously fiendish murder spree aboard a ferry steamer crossing Lake Mälaren for Stockholm on the evening of May 16, 1900: shortly after the Prins Carl‘s departure from Arboga, Nordlund, armed with two revolvers and two blades, went on a rampage through the boat (Swedish link), shooting or stabbing everyone he saw.

The spree left five dead, including the ship’s captain, and several others wounded. Then Nordlund lowered a lifeboat into the water and rowed away with about 800 stolen kronor … and the opprobrium of the nation.


Nordlund stalks the Prins Carl, from this verse pdf (Swedish).

Police were able to track him from the descriptions of witnesses to a train station and arrest him the very next day. Their maniac would turn out to be a 25-year-old career thief, only released the month before from his latest prison stint.

Although captured trying to flee, Nordlund from the first projected resignation — even relief, writing his parents that he would be well rid of a society he had never felt part of. Certainly the sentence was in little doubt given the infamy of the crime (Nordlund was almost lynched after arrest), and the man made no attempt to defend himself or mitigate his actions in court, nor to seek mercy after conviction.

Nordlund was the third person executed in Sweden in 1900 alone, but there would be no more patients for Dahlman for a decade … until 1910, when Sweden conducted its first and only guillotining. The country has not carried out a death sentence since.

Besides being the penultimate executee in Swedish history, John Filip Nordlund is also the last man in Europe beheaded manually (rather than with Dr. Guillotin’s device) other than in Germany.

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1727: An Irish deserter at Gibraltar

Add comment December 9th, 2012 Headsman

This account of an incident during the 1727 Spanish siege of Gibraltar, where the British army garrisoned, comes from an unknown soldier who signed himself only

December 9th. Last night a deserter clambered up within a little of Willis’s battery and was assisted by a ladder of ropes by our men. When the officers came to examine his face, they found him to have deserted out of the Royal Irish two months ago. Asking the reason of his return, he said he chose rather to be hanged than continue in the Spanish service, so is to have his choice.

It is not positively stated that the hanging itself did take place on this date. Since we concern ourselves in these doleful pages with the circumstances under which life becomes dispensable, an assortment of other anecdotes from this same soldier’s journal helpfully illustrate the life of British soldiery at the Pillars of Hercules.

March 9th. Came a deserter who reports that while our guns were firing at them an officer pulled off his hat, huzzaed and called God to damn us all, when one of our balls with unerring justice took off the miserable man’s head and left him a wretched example of the Divine justice.

April 12th. A recruit refused to work, carry arms, eat or drink was whipped for the fifth time, after which being asked by the officer he said he was now ready to do his duty.May 7th. This morning Ensign Stubbs of Colonel Egerton’s regiment retired a little out of camp and shot himself.

June 17th. Today two corporals of the Guards boxed over a rail until both expired, nobody can tell for what reason.

October 11th. One of Pearce’s regiment went into the belfry of a very high steeple, threw himself into the street, and broke his skull to pieces.

October 16th. Will Garen, who broke his back, was hanged.

January 2 1728. Here is nothing to do nor any news, all things being dormant and in suspense, with the harmless diversions of drinking, dancing, revelling, whoring, gaming and other innocent debaucheries to pass the time — and really, to speak my own opinion I think and believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not half so wicked and profane as this worthy city and garrison of Gibraltar.


Model of a soldier being flogged on present-day display in the remains of Gibraltar’s fortifications. The adjacent explanatory placard reads: “Under siege conditions, the mixture of tension, boredom, hunger and alcohol meant that discipline had to be strict if order was to be preserved. One of the most common forms of punishment was flogging with a nine tailed whip. A drummer in a regiment, which later became the Lancashire Fusiliers, achieved fame as the most flogged man in the British Army. In his first years here [in Gibraltar] he received 30,000 lashes, of which 4,000 were administered in a single year.”

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1922: Four anti-Treaty Irish Republicans

Add comment December 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Irish Republicans Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey were shot.


Stagey-looking fake propaganda photo of Rory O’Connor’s (very real) Dec. 8, 1922 execution.

These four were militant foes of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was to the Troubles as the Apple of Discord was to the Trojan War.

Furious at the betrayed dream (and, briefly, reality) of a united Irish republic, they were among those who occupied central Dublin’s Four Courts in April 1922, hoping to draw Britain into a counterproductive intervention.

It was a move straight from the playbook of tragic guerrilla-cum-statesman Michael Collins … except that Collins was on the other side in 1922. Collins, then Chairman of the Provisional Government for the new Irish state (and negotiator of the hated treaty) spent that spring trying to convince the Four Corners occupiers to back off, but also not intervening to force their garrison out.

Noninterference came to an end after some other Irish militants assassinated British Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in June 1922. London put the political screws to Michael Collins, leading to the anomalous sight of the onetime anti-British revolutionary turning British-lent artillery against Dublin republicans.


Times change.

The Four Courts guys, imprisoned from July, would provide an even more poignant illustration of Ireland’s heartbreaking house-divided history.

For it was the Provisional Government’s Minister of Justice Kevin O’Higgins who ordered the executions — a man who had once been so tight with the executed Rory O’Connor that O’Connor was in his wedding party. (Where they toasted the Easter Rising martyrs.)

What could turn men so tight against one another? On December 7, anti-Treaty gunmen killed Sean Hales, an IRA man whom Collins had brought over to the pro-Treaty side. In a ruthless reprisal, Higgins approved the summary execution of his former comrades.

According to the official announcement* — which was bitterly denounced as lawless by the Free State’s Labour parliamentarians —

The execution took place this morning at Mountjoy Gaol of the following persons taken in arms against the Irish Government: — Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellowes, Joseph McKelvey, and Richard Barrett, as a reprisal for the assassination on his way to Dail Eireann on December 7 of Brigadier Sean Hales, T.D., and as a solemn warning to those associated with them who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people.

Bloody ironies would stack one upon the other. The rest of Sean Hales’s family had remained staunchly anti-Treaty, and publicly denounced the executions.

Sean’s own brother Tom Hales had famously withstood British torture in 1921. But Tom is even more famous for a different deed: in August 1922, Tom Hales led the republican column that ambushed and killed Michael Collins.

Many more bodies lay ahead.

* Quoted in the December 9,1922 London Times, along with some of the opposition firestorm that ensued in the Dail. “Mr. Cathal O’Shannon, shouting indignantly at the Government, said they were not fit to govern, and described the executions as the greatest crime, without exception, committed in Ireland in the last ten years. ‘You have no authority,’ he said, ‘to execute these men. You murdered them.'”

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