On this day in 2010, reggae artist, politician, activist and convicted child killer Modise Mokwadi Fly was hanged in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone.
He was the second person to be executed under the administration of President Ian Khama; the first was also a child killer.
Fly, a South African national, had been general secretary of the Botswana Congress Party Youth League. On November 27, 2006, he killed his two-year-old son, Tawana Mosinyi, with an ax while the toddler slept. Fly maintained until his death that Tawana’s death was accidental and he’d actually been trying to throw his ax at the police who were firing shots at his house from outside. The prosecution believed Fly deliberately killed his son to spite the child’s mother, whom he’d recently quarreled with.
After his conviction on October 17, 2008, Fly apologized to Tawana’s family for his death. He sentenced to hang five days later, then he waited a year and a half for his date with death. Witnesses reported he seemed oddly cheerful and gregarious in court, smiling and chatting amiably with his friends and relatives who attended the trial.
In February 2010, the month before his execution, Fly made an attempt to escape from prison. He was the first prisoner to succeed in escaping from Botswana’s death row — but he was only free for fifteen minutes. After his capture, it was alleged, he was brutally beaten by the guards and then placed in solitary confinement so no one could see his injuries.
If the prison did in fact do this, it didn’t work: the news of the alleged mistreatment became public on March 23. Whether the timing had anything to do with his secretive execution the next day is unclear. Predictably, Botswana’s Department of Prisons and Rehabilitation denied that the prisoner had been abused or placed in isolation.
I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.
On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.
Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.
Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.
Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.
“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.
Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.
Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.
While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.
His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.
Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.
The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.
In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:
This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.
One James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery, upon a law formerly made and published in print.
It was thus occasioned and discovered. This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends’ minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.
Whereupon, soon after she was married, divers young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and fearful horror of conscience withal, he could not keep secret, but discovered this, and other the like with other women, and was forced to acknowledge the justice of God in that having often called others fools, etc., for confessing against themselves, he was now forced to do the like. The woman dwelt now in Plymouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was detected, etc., sent her to us.
Upon her examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton’s and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house. It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull. And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.
The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loth to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it; and questioned the letter whether adultery was death by God’s law now.* This Britton had been a professor in England, but coming hither he opposed our church government, etc., and grew dissolute, losing both power and profession of godliness.
March 21 [1643/44*]. They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company, etc.
While Puritan courts were certainly known to execute for sexualtransgressions, Mary and James appear to be the only documented case in the history of [what is now] the United States of an outright execution for adultery.**
The crime and the setting inevitably call to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and indeed he would likely have known about this case from Winthrop’s journals.
There are, however, even more compelling parallel cases — which, if they do not end on the scaffold, are at least as dramatic from the standpoint of posterity.
The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:
“We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A.”
Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, “Execution Done.” It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne’s novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor’s branding in a section titled “The Scarlet Letter.”
… the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor’s adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester’s plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor’s delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is “some three months old”.
It’s rather interesting to notice that in Latham and Britton’s case, even the judges who ultimately sentenced the lovers to die were overtly reluctant about doing so: the subtext of Winthrop’s narrative suggests to this reader that, had the pair not confessed, everyone would have been more than happy to use the “two witnesses” loophole to avoid noosing a concupiscent teenager stuck in a barren marriage. Whatever our caricature of them, Puritan elites too had some sense of proportionality about these things.
Even in Hawthorne, where the protagonist is punished only with public shaming, one of the crowd complains,
“This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their won wives and daughters go astray.”
On this date in 1428, Matteuccia di Francesco was condemned and burned as a witch in the Perugian town of Todi. It’s one of the oldest witchcraft cases in Italy for which a complete trial record survives.
Matteuccia was a local wise woman or sorceress dispensing the herbal remedies, potions, and incantations that comprised the everyday magic as experienced by popular superstition — like a homemade contraceptive (ashes of a mule’s hoof mixed into wine: drink up!) for the mistress of the local prelate.
The woman seems to have practiced this openly and (for aught we know) happily in Todi … until Bernardino of Siena holy rolled into town.
Bernardino, now considered a Catholic saint, was a mendicant Franciscan who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities.
The turmoil was large and the people trembled. The Church and piazza Santa Croce was full of citizens and peasants, women and men, several thousands in number. The shouting of little children and young boys was loud when friar Bernardino stopped preaching and went to the piazza with many other friars and set on fire a pile of four tables of games, several baskets of dice, more than four thousands pairs of old and new card games of great numbers, and placed and attached and hung on every side were much hair and flounces of dresses of women and other things and with a lot of wood underneath. You have never seen a more beautiful fire, and the flames spread in the air and confused the demon enemy of God, bringing glory, honor and praises to the reverence of our master Jesus Christ the highest God.*
Detail view of Sano di Pietro’s 1445 St. Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, showing the saint (brandishing his trademark prop tablets) drawing a crowd in his native Siena’s central plaza. There are many paintings, stretching to centuries after his death, on the theme of Bernardino’s, er, spellbinding sermons.
As pertains specifically to witchcraft, one might say that the import of preachers like Bernardino thundering from the pulpits in the early 15th century was to delegitimate the many Matteuccias around.
Thanks to decades of evolving thought, this formerly accepted sphere of “white magic” was now going to be understood as outright devil-worship: your classic theological zero-tolerance policy.
O you who have used the charm for broken bones, to you, and to him or her who says that she is bewitched, and who makes you believe she is — to all these I say, take heed! For the first to feel the strokes from God’s scourges will be those who have trusted in these enchantments and followed them; and next vengeance will overtake those who have not brought them to justice … When such people say that they wish to cure anyone, do you know what you should do? There is nothing better to do than cry, “To the fire! To the fire! To the fire!”
Wherever one may be, and whoever may know him or her, in any place whatsoever inside or outside the city, straightaway accuse her before the Inquisitor … every witch, every wizard, every sorcerer or sorceress, or worker of charms and spells … such enchanters, every time they have worked any charms or spells have denied God by doing so.
Inspired by our itinerant zealot, Todi tightened up witchcraft laws in 1426, and prescribed the stake and the fagot for violations.
“The church now equated the performance of common sorcery, involving only a few words or simple gestures and aimed at curing or causing illness or affecting the weather, with … a preexisting pact between the sorcerer and demons that made such magic possible,” writes Michael Bailey.** “Indeed, such sorcerers, whom in an earlier era the church had seen more as victims and dupes of demonic illusions and had hardly taken seriously, now became all the more terrible in that they were capable of commanding demonic forces with only a few simple words or signs.”
Matteuccia didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound demonic-command powers before she ran afoul of Todi’s eager witch-hunters. Her words, as filtered through her interrogators, capture the evolving theology-cum-jurisprudence around magic.
After copping to countless trifling hocuses and pocuses — philters for lovers, poultices for injuries, aid and comfort for battered women (apparently, counseling these women was one of her specialties: “adding evil to evil,” according to her persecutors) — her narrative suddenly shifts to the phantasmagorial.
Presumably under torture or the promise thereof, the corner pharmacist is suddenly reporting that she drank children’s blood and transformed into an animal to fly off to Lucifer’s convocations at Benevento. (This is also one of Italy’s first documented invocations of flying to a witches’ sabbat.) Not surprisingly, these scenes are straight out of Bernardino’s own descriptions of what witches do.
The intellectual framework of the inquisitors who pursued Matteuccia now expected to find the latter variety of supernatural diabolism as a corollary and precondition for stocking an impotence enchantment. And like inquisitors are always prone to do, they made sure to find what they were looking for.
* 1424 account of a Bernardino spectacle in Florence, quoted and translated in Nirit Ben-Aryeh’s “Jews and Judaism in the Rhetoric of Popular Preachers: The Florentine Sermons of Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) and Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444)”, Jewish History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000),
** Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages”, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 2001).
A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.
On this date in 1879, legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged in San Jose.
Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericanoconquest of the Mexican-American War.
That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*
One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.
For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.
How did you separate fact from folklore researching this outlaw? How much do we really know about him?
Generally speaking the whole genre of outlaws and lawmen is sort of known for bad research and myths and crazy stories. It tends to attract — here I’m denigrating myself– people who are a little off. Like myself. The movie buffs tend to get reality mixed up with what they’ve seen in the movies.
The whole genre has attracted poor research and sensational writers since the days of the dime novels. Though there are real historical groups: the Wild West History Association is probably the best example — True West magazine and Wild West magazine do a god job of publishing authentic history.
With Vasquez in particular, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics.
He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to is female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality, sort of the life of the party.
Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime. A lot of the myths are exaggerations of things he really did.
When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out. The most physical way is to rebel. This can be done in an organized way, as was done by Juan Cortina in Texas, or it can express itself in bandit activity. An analysis of the life of Tiburcio Vasquez clearly demonstrates that, while in the strict sense of the word he was a criminal, at the same time his underlying motivation was self-defense. Some Anglo-American folklorists have attempted to portray Tiburcio Vasquez as a comical and oversexed Mexican bandit … dismiss[ing] the legitimate grievance of Chicanos during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Tiburcio Vasquez was an outlaw, many Mexicans still consider him a hero.
His outlaw career seems like it’s bound up in this Anglo-Hispanic cultural collision. To what extent does that influence how he’s “read” by others?
His life is sort of a microcosm of what was going on. The first portion of my book deals with the rise and fall of the native settlers of California.
With the loss of California in the Mexican-American War and then the discovery of gold, they became second-class citizens in their own land. So Vasquez becomes a folk hero — he robbed stagecoaches, thumbed his nose at the sheriff, and got away.
You find these same outlaw myths in all cultures. Vasquez is no different, though he’s better documented than most. People would sing corridos about him.
There were some quotes by him that says that he was driven to it, the Anglos drove me to it — but that’s no different from Jesse James or Billy the Kid saying they were driven to it, even if it’s true. Most of these guys I’m talking about are or were history professors; they should have known better.
What led you to this story?
When I was a kid in the early 60s I watched all the westerns. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were my favorite. But then I wanted to know, was there a Wild West here in California? So when I got into high school I went and read everything I could get my hands on about early California history.
Vasquez and Black Bart were pretty much the most famous early California outlaws. So I started researching Vasquez in high school, and collected information for about 40 years, but it took me another four years to write it.
There’s never been a biography about Vasquez. There were three paperback books published about him, one after he was captured and two right after he was hanged — they’re not dime novels, but they’re sort of semi-fictional. There have been many magazines, many book chapters since, but everything published about him has just been a rehash of those three books. (n.b. — here’s a pdf of one of those original 1870s books -ed.)
It must have been a compelling story for you to stick with it for 40 years.
It’s just sort of a great story from early California. Vasquez was very colorful.
He fell under the influence of a guy named Anastacio Garcia when he was about 16 years old, and his parents seem to have separated. He had a large family; all of them were extremely honest. One of his brothers was a very prominent rancher; another brother served a term as a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County.
Vasquez, possibly because his father wasn’t around, fell under the influence of Garcia and got involved in the Roach-Belcher feud. Garcia was a hired gun, and the two of them were involved in a brawl in a Fandango house in 1854 and one of them killed a local constable. Tiburcio Vasquez fled Monterrey and never appeared openly after that.
But he basically did not change.
He was engaged to Garcia’s sister when he was 17 and she apparently broke it off. That seemed to have embittered him because he never had another serious relationship again with another woman. He was a real rounder, he got shot over women, took off with the wives of other gang members.
That was very foolish — that’s what got him the noose, when a cuckolded gang member testified against him at trial. He never made any effort to change; he was what you call a career criminal.
He was a very cultured person, and even if you compare him to more modern-day criminals like Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger, none of them had that kind of culture. He really was sort of the prototype of that sort of charismatic bandit who at the same time is both charming and deadly.
Probably the thing to me that was the most fascinating was the information I dug up about his family: his parents, his sisters who were very loyal to him; his brothers who all tried to get him to go straight. I was very pleased to meet the descendants of some of his brothers, so it was fascinating to reconstruct his family life to try to explain his personality.
So what was the nature of that bandit career?
Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killer, though he was involved in nine murders — he always said it was someone else.
The one that he was hanged for, his gang killed three people in a robbery. He claimed someone else pulled the trigger. Some witnesses said it was Vasquez himself, but under the law then and now, if you band together to commit a felony and someone dies, everyone involved is culpable for murder.
He’d been doing a lot of robberies before then, but he’d do them in remote areas. He tried not to kill anyone; he’d tie people up — but he was also involved in a lot of gunfights. Basically he’d shoot to escape. In doing the research I found that he had fired into a brothel in Santa Cruz and wounded three people; another time he fired into a stagecoach station.
One of the great Vasquez stories is, he gets out of San Quentin and he goes to San Juan Bautista which is one of the most picturesque villages in California then and now — it was one of his favorite hangouts. One of his gang members, Salazar, had tried to go straight. Vasquez shows up at San Juan and finds out that Salazar has married this gorgeous 15-year-old named “Pepita” and he and another gang member lust after her and get her to run off with the gang. So Salazar comes gunning for him; they have a gunfight right there in front of the mission, and Salazar shoots Vasquez through the chest and damn near kills him. His gang gets him out of it … the girl gets pregnant, evidently with Tiburcio’s child and she dies of a botched abortion. It’s sort of the Vasquez story in a microcosm, it looks pretty romantic on the surface and you look a little deeper and it becomes pretty grisly.
He gave a lot of interviews after he was captured and they give color to the story. There’s the natural human inclination to paint yourself in the best light.
None of which helped him avoid execution.
His hanging was actually the most publicized hanging in the history of the Pacific coast; newspapers came from Canada, New York all over the country to witness the hanging.
He was hanged in front of a big crowd, a thousand people or more present. People climbed trees and telegraph poles became the jailhouse was packed. The sheriff had 300 or 400 invitations issued and then many many more were clustered around.
Executed Today would be remiss not to add that our day’s gallows-bird was the namesake of the Vasquez Rocks, a small Natural Area Park north of Los Angeles where the outlaw used to hide out.
This striking triangular rock formation, thrust out of the earth by tectonic action, has been used extensively in film productions of every genre since at least the 1930s, including with almost compulsive frequency in the Star Trek franchise — e.g., Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn:
* There’s a good deal of material about Tiburcio’s career linked here.
On this date in 2010, Paul Warner Powell was electrocuted in Virginia — the last human being, as of this writing, to be put to death by that method, although he is not likely to retain that distinction long-term.
However many might be yet to ride the lightning, it is doubtful that any will usurp this virulent racist’s place on dumbest-criminals lists.
Powell confronted a 16-year-old acquaintance about her relationship with an African-American, and in the altercation that followed our man stabbed Stacie Reed in the heart.
Then the charmer laid in wait in the house for the return of Stacie’s 14-year-old sister, whom he raped and left (so he thought) stabbed to death in the basement. Kristie Reed survived an abdomen wound and a slashed throat.
So far, just a regular malevolent criminal.
But his fate turned on a small legal technicality followed by a monumentally foolish blunder.
Initially death-sentenced for the murder (of Stacie) aggravated by the rape (of Kristie), that sentence was vacated by the Commonwealth’s high court on the grounds that rape could only aggravate the murder into a capital crime if it was the murder victim (Stacie) who was raped. Prosecutors had not shown that.
Erroneously believing this decision to have freed him from any risk of execution thanks to double jeopardy, Powell then proceeded to scribble a lengthy jeering diatribe to his prosecutor “to show you how stupid all of y’all mother fuckers are.”
The entire very profane letter is here. Apart from its intrinsically monstrous narrative, it made this very unwise admission about how things went with the murder victim Stacie:
I told her that all I wanted to do was fuck her and then I would leave and that we could do it the easy way or the hard way.
… she got up and started fighting with me and clawed me face. We wrestled around a little and then I slammed her to the floor. When she hit the floor I sat on top of her and pinned her hands down again. She said she would fuck me and I told her that if she tried fighting with me again, I would kill her.
This freely-confessed attempted rape (it was not consummated — hence the state’s previous inability to charge it) qualified as the exact aggravating factor whose want had just enabled Powell to escape death row. And in fact, prosecutors were able to use it to try Powell for his life once again. This time, they got him — and it stuck.*
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Powell, it turned out, was an energetic correspondent.
Apart from the aforementioned lethal missive, he posted other bigoted mash notes to his prosecutor “Fat Ebert”; he sent menacing taunts to the victims’ mother Lorraine Whoberry; and he even began swapping racy billets-doux with the married forewoman of his first jury who, guilt-stricken at having sent a man to his death, started writing the murderer and wound up falling for him and testifying on his behalf at his second sentencing.
Whoberry, the mother of Stacie and Kristie and the woman whom Powell had crudely harassed by mail from prison, founded the STACIE Foundation to teach compassion for violent crime victims. Whoberry even had some compassion of her own for Powell, eventually forgiving him; the two spoke amicably by phone on the night before Powell’s execution.**
* This raises our periodic reminder to anyone who should come to be of interest in a legal investigation not to talk to the police, period.
However, it is our firm conviction that Executed Today attracts a caliber of reader who intuit the inadvisability of confessing one’s capital crimes in florid written detail.
** Forgiveness or no, Whoberry did continue to support Powell’s execution.
On this date in 1995, Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore.
Contemplacion had, four years before, strangled a fellow-maid and drowned that maid’s four-year-old charge.
That’s what she confessed to, at least. Even though Contemplacion’s camp would eventually argue that the confession had been coerced, or that she’d been possessed by a strange epileptic, Contemplacion herself never really walked back that admission.
Still, Flor Contemplacion the cause celebre and Flor Contemplacion the cultural phenomenon was never only about the woman’s innocence, even if many do still believe she was framed.
By whatever happenstance of timing and circumstance, widespread publicity of her case in the Philippines during the months leading up to her hanging tapped a national discontent among her countrymen and -women about “OFWs” — overseas Filipino workers.
This economic sector — exported labor — had been intentionally nurtured (pdf) by Manila beginning with a 1974 labor code, and over the ensuing generation ballooned twentyfold into a positively enormous phenomenon.* By the time Flor Contemplacion hanged, everybody in the Philippines knew people who had worked overseas, and whose wage remittances were indispensable (pdf) for supporting their families in the Philippines. (And increasingly, the entire national economy.)
Boom of the overseas Filipino workers sector, 1975 – 2000 (1975 = 1). Source of figures; there are more official OFW stats here.
Ascendance of the OFW industry brought with it the discontents attendant with scattering wholesale quantities of the populace to unfamiliar corners of the globe, many of them to confront the timeless varieties of workplace abuse from positions of special vulnerability: “The dark reality,” one organization says this year, of “low wages, horrid working conditions, little protection for human rights, exploitation, harassment, threats, illegal arrests, imprisonment, criminalization, and deportation.”
To say nothing of the political discontents raised by such a discomfiting abdication of autarky, and the “domestic anxieties” (pdf) of developing “the embarrassing reputation that we are a country of DHs [domestic helpers], entertainers, and even prostitutes.” This is, truly, a rich and complex tapestry.
Flor Contemplacion is practically the patron saint of the indicted Filipino/a abroad, and her fruitless clemency appeal the political breakout of OFWs and their allies as a constituency to reckon with.
The effect was immediate. Contemplacion hadn’t had any great level of consular support early in her criminal process — the time when it might have made the most difference. (The Philippines embassy in Singapore later took considerable heat for this fact.)
But as the story made headlines and some sketchy witnesses accused the victim’s widower husband of being the real perpetrator, the case became a national sensation. Recently-elected president Fidel Ramos, who campaigned on restoring the previously-abolished death penalty in the Philippines, not only had to put on the full-court press for this condemned woman but incongruously declared her a “national hero”; his wife personally received Contemplacion’s remains at the airport. Leaders and ordinary people from Catholics to Communists rallied (sometimes rioted) in anger.
(Singapore was just at this time establishing its own reputation as the place that never gives diplomatically expedient clemencies. Never.)
Whatever the domestic controversies, the labor-export business has only continued to grow in the generation since Contemplacion’s hanging. To this day, the Filipino public has shown great sympathy with OFWs entangled in alien criminal justice systems, and demanded diplomatic support — regardless of particular individuals’ putative guilt.
Regrettably, it is often called to do so: from Saudi Arabia to China, the plight of Filipinos executed abroad remains a recurrent and emotionally charged theme in the country.
Flor Contemplacion’s name, well-known still anywhere in the archipelago, was back in the news last year … when her three sons all drew lifetime prison sentences for drug-smuggling.
On this date in 1677, Thomas Sadler and William Johnson were hanged at Tyburn for one of the most impudent burglaries in English history.
“Thomas Sadler alias Clarke, William Johnson alias Trueman and Thomas Reneger … broke burglariously into the dwelling house of Heneage Lord Finch the Lord Chancellor of the said Lord the King and then and there stole and carried off a silver mace gilt gold worth one hundred pounds and two velvet purses imbroydered with gold and and silver and sett with pearles, worth forty pounds, of the goods and chattels of the said Lord the King.”
The robbers, to their misfortune, were little better conscious of this crucial precaution.
They paraded through the darkened streets with mace poised on shoulder, a glorious revelry of knaves celebrating what they surely anticipated was the signal achievement of their lives — and the knell of their deaths.
Upon return to their lodging-house, and having no particular place to stash this hottest of loot, they just stuck it in a cabinet. There, the landlady ran across it while cleaning, and raised the alarum.
So Sadler and Johnson died for the astounding crime — Reneger, who didn’t, hadn’t been involved in a previous robbery that Sadler and Johnson committed, which might have helped mitigate his guilt — along with three distinctly undercard common criminals whom even the Newgate Ordinary scarcely noticed.
Johnson left a mournful little self-eulogy, many centuries since lost but preserved for us in that Ordinary’s evocative text.
Before his Tryal, having an excellent fancie, and a hand no less happy at Limning, he had drawn most lively on the wall of his Chamber in Newgate, a pair of Scales, and in one balance the Mace, and in the other Tyburn; the last much over weighing the first: But since his Condemnation, he drew in one Scale the Gallows, in the other a Crucifix; the first mounted up by the greater weight of the last, and these lines under-written, as I have been informed.
My Precious Lord, from all Transgressions free, Was pleas’d, in tender pity unto me, To undergo the Ignominious Tree.
I Suffer justly; but his Sacrifice, I trust, shall make my groveling Spirit rise, And from the Gibbet mount the glorious Skies.
Clarke‘s last remarks were a protest against Kentucky’s military government. Having captured Clarke just three days before, it refused him prisoner-of-war status; regarding him rather as a franc-tireur, it gave him a pro forma secret trial even while throwing up the gallows for the preordained hanging.
This border region between North and South had seen bitter guerrilla war. As one indicator: the Northern effort in the Bluegrass State to suppress Confederate irregulars had been led by a general who earned the nickname “Butcher of Kentucky” for his ruthless exertions.
Stubbornly eluding those exertions (the Butcher was gone by March 1865) was Clarke, an elfin captain of 20 years with a band of cavalry raiders (in)famous for its hit-and run raids on Union men and supplies. (And on one infamous occasion, 30 African-American cattle-drivers.)
It was during this time that stories began circulating of a daring female commando, a “she-devil in pantaloons,” and the picturesque character — perfectly calibrated to twist the Butcher’s tail — seized popular imagination and moved newspapers.
While the honor is disputed by another Kentucky irregular hanged later in 1865, this “Sue Mundy” (or Munday) character soon came to be identified with the androgynous, just-old-enough-for-his-riding-license Clarke.
The Louisville Journal fantastically embroidered the Mundy legend and its alleged connection to Clarke — editorializing, for instance, that Clarke cross-dressed for amusement and advantage and could pull off his female alter ego thanks to his
“fair [complexion], long dark hair, which touched his shoulders, and a beautifully shaped mouth” (Mar. 16, 1865)
“medium female statue, small feet and hands, face beardless and quite handsome, voice soft and feminine — all together making a counterfeit so perfect that even John Morgan, on a certain occasion, mistook him for a female.” (Jan. 14, 1865)
A captured Clarke would eventually complain that “he was not guilty for one-tenth of the outrages that he had been charged with and that the Louisville Journal had done him a great injustice.” Maybe he’d never heard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The publicity this afternoon, of course, was of the very worst variety, albeit not exactly inimical to the celebrity racket.
“The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions. It was feared for a time that he would break the lashings. His sufferings, however, were of short duration. Thus ended the career of the notorious Sue Mundy.”