Spee is an honorable figure in the sad history of 17th century witch-hunting. This very year of 1631, he published — anonymously at first — his Caution Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors). This seminal volume took a heretical-for-the-time stance against the widespread contemporary practice of judicial torture. Spee argued, heatedly, that it was great at extracting confessions but not so reliable when it came to extracting accurate confessions.
Torture chair-illustrated title page of Hetty Kemmerich’s study of German witchcraft prosecutions, with Anna Spee’s plaintive titular cry. Sagt, Was Ich Gestehen Soll! has not been translated from German, but is available from Amazon.de.
“Why do we search high and low for wizards?” Spee jeered his contemporaries. “I will show them to you no matter where. Torture the Capuchins and Jesuits; they will confess … Torture the prelates and canons of the Church; they will confess … If you want still more, then torture you yourselves, and then torture me.”
There’s no known connection between Spee’s work and the fate of poor Anna Katharina, but she could certainly serve as a case in point.
In vain did she deny intercourse with the devil in September 1631 until she could withstand her interrogators no longer and gave them what they demanded of her. A German book about the witch hunts takes its title from Anna Spee’s plea to her tormenters: Sagt, was ich gestehen soll! Tell me what I should say next!
On this date in 1729, Jephthah Big was hanged at Tyburn — “so ill at the place of execution, that he could not attend the devotions proper for men in his calamitous situation,” according to the Newgate calendar.
This member of the all-name team got his from an Israelite warrior-judge noted for the human sacrifice of his daughter. The sin of Jephthah Big was much the smaller.
When Big’s brother got hired as a London gentleman’s coachman, Jephthah decided to make a quick hundred guineas of his own off the guy by sending him “such a letter as would make the gentleman tremble.”
The difficulty in this scenario is always in actually taking possession of the boodle without exposing oneself to capture.
Jephthah’s big plan was to ask for the money to be delivered to the Black Boy ale-house in Goodman’s Fields, but while his confederate Peter Salter was holding down a bench there day after day waiting for the windfall, Salter chanced to read a newspaper advert taken out by the target himself offering a reward for busting the shakedown. When a porter turned up asking for their extortionist alias, Salter sagely opted not to answer to it and instead left the tavern … but the porter had his own suspicions, and when he saw Salter by chance again a few days later, he had him arrested.
Salter got out of the scrape by turning crown’s evidence against Jephthah Big, who was hanged as the instigator of the whole mess.
She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain and the very last woman to be executed at that particular prison, which now houses only men; the job was performed by Albert Pierrepoint.
Born in 1906, Louisa had already served prison time for ration book fraud by the time of the murder, and she lost custody of her four children due to her excessive drinking and neglect.
She couldn’t seem to hold on to a man (she was married three times) or a job (she had 20 in three years).
She took her final position on March 12, 1953, after she and her husband of one month, 71-year-old Alfred Edward Merrifield, became housekeepers and live-in companions to Sarah Ann Ricketts, a spinster who was nearly eighty years old. Sarah Ricketts owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, North Shore, Blackpool.
The Merrifields indulged in elder abuse and neglect, and Sarah Ann complained she didn’t get enough to eat and that her housekeepers swilled rum on her dime. Meanwhile, Louisa was going around boasting that she’d inherited a £3,000 house.
When someone asked her who had died, she answered, “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.”
Louisa’s prophecy was eerily accurate: Sarah Ann Ricketts expired on the night of April 14, 1953, only a month after she’d hired the Merrifields and three days after Louisa’s prediction … but not before drafting a new will which left her bungalow to the Merrifields.
Louisa didn’t call a doctor until the next morning. She said that, as the old woman was clearly beyond help, she didn’t want to drag anyone out of bed in the middle of the night.
The suspicious GP refused to sign a death certificate and insisted on an autopsy, which revealed the cause of death as phosphorus poisoning, administered in the form of a rat poison called Rodine.
Although a police search of the bungalow didn’t turn up any Rodine, a check at the local pharmacy showed Louisa had recently purchased the stuff and signed the poison register.
The Merrifields found themselves charged with murder. Louisa was arrested first, two weeks after Sarah Ricketts died, and Alfred a few days later.
At their trial in July 1953, Louisa was convicted and sentenced to hang. The judge called her crime “as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.”
The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Alfred, however, and the district attorney decided not to prosecute again. He was released and in due time inherited a half-share in Mrs. Ricketts’s bungalow. He died in 1962 at the age of 80.
Louisa Merrifield’s ghost is said to haunt the cell she once inhabited at Strangeways Prison.
Captured attempting to escape the approaching royalist forces of Jose Tomas Boves, Salias was shot with the spectacularly defiant last cry of “God Almighty, if the Heavens admit Spaniards, then I renounce the Heavens!”
* There are some revisionist hypotheses postulating other authors.
Mukhtar, a religious teacher and follower of the Senussi movement, became the leader of the Libyan resistance that dogged the Italian occupation. Mukhtar proved an energetic and successful desert guerrilla fighter, and he had to be given the Italians’ mechanized military.
The Italians executed an estimated 4,000 Libyans in the 1920s, and drove hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, and gradually, only gradually, gained the upper hand on their adversaries.
Captured in battle after he abandoned a 1929 truce, Mukhtar was denied prisoner-of-war status and subjected to a snap military tribunal in one of the small coastal enclaves actually controlled by Italy — “a regular trial and consequent sentence, which will surely be death,” as the Italian general directed. It surely was.
A national hero for contemporary Libyans across any social divide you’d care to name, Omar Mukhtar was valorized by the rebels who recently overthrew the aforementioned Gaddafi (here’s Mukhtar on a billboard in rebel-held Benghazi). “The whole world knows what Omar al-Mukhtar did,” Mukhtar’s 90-year-old son told media during the civil war. “That’s where they get their energy from. Ask the youth, they’ll tell you they are all the grandsons of Omar al-Mukhtar.”
On this date in 1939, 57-year-old Charles Augustine McLachlan was gassed at San Quentin State Prison in California. He’d murdered a six-year-old neighbor girl at his home in Downey, California the previous year.
McLachlan was a widower who was half Irish-American and half Mexican by descent but described as white. A master painter and decorator, he owned a plot of land with a few houses he’d built himself.
Mugshot of perp; newspaper sketch of victim.
McLachlan lived alone in the smallest of the houses, an eight-by-twelve-foot shack; the largest building was occupied by his son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Carmen, and their child. The parents of the victim, Jennie Moreno (her name is spelled “Jenny” in many accounts), had known McLachlan for about thirty years. Although he was occasionally seen drunk, he had a reputation as a kind, likeable man.
That is, until April 14, 1938.
At 10:00 that morning, Jennie Moreno and her younger sister went to give a magazine to Carmen McLachlan.
Jennie’s parents last saw her at 11:00 a.m., while she was getting ready to go to church. When she didn’t return home at noon as expected, her parents began searching for her. At some point a neighbor smelled a strange odor and noticed smoke pouring out the windows of McLachlan’s shack, which had no chimney or flue.
The police were summoned. They arrived at his house at midnight and found bloodstained, partially burned clothing belonging to both Jennie and McLachlan lying on a sheet of metal on the floor of the shack. The floor had been washed and was still sopping wet.
A search of the premises turned up Jennie’s shoes and a bloodstained hammer. McLachlan’s mattress was saturated with blood and there was blood on the floor beneath the bed as well. He was arrested on the spot.
At the same time the sheriff’s deputies were arresting McLachlan, a search party that included Jennie’s father and uncle found her partially nude body concealed among the weeds in the vacant lot next to McLachlan’s property.
When they saw McLachlan being led away in handcuffs, they guessed he must be the murderer. Jennie’s uncle struck McLachlan in the face and several others in the crowd called out, “Lynch him!” But the police were able to disperse these aspiring vigilantes without too much difficulty.
McLachlan, who had been drinking wine and whiskey since 9:00 a.m., was quite drunk at the time of his arrest and at first said he had no memory of what happened. He ultimately made a confession to murder. McLachlan stated he’d been lying in bed resting with the door open when little Jennie wandered inside. He took her into the bed and began to fondle her, then struck her in the head with a hammer after she screamed. He waited until after dark, and then carried her body to where it was later found.
Jennie’s body showed evidence that she had in fact been violently raped, something McLachlan never admitted to.
He would go on to repudiate his entire statement, saying the police had kept him in jail without sleep or food and coerced the confession. He pleaded both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, waived his right to a jury trial and was heard by a judge.
McLachlan claimed he heard “witches” speaking to him and said the voices “say most anything.” While in jail he would refuse to eat or speak for days at a time, and he refused to cooperate with his defense. A psychiatrist hired to examine him found “evidence of pre-senility and psychic pain” but believed he was feigning mental illness.
Found both guilty and sane, he was condemned to death. The judge to whom McLachlan had entrusted his fate called Jennie Moreno’s murder “one of the most brutal and horrible ever perpetrated in Los Angeles County.”
Charles McLachlan walked into the gas chamber at 10:10 a.m., eighteen months after his crime. “Twisting and straining against the straps that bound him,” he took seven minutes to die.
Ndebele rebels slew over 200 white settlers in Matabeleland and Mashonaland during the first week of the surprising rising in March 1896. But most settlers were able to hunker down in he town of Bulawayo behind makeshift breastworks.
Up to 15,000 Ndebele warriors menaced this little citadel, but were deterred from storming it by the settlers’ modern weapons — artillery and the legendary Maxim gun** — until relieved in May. (Rhodes himself led one of the relief columns.) At that point, the rebels retreated to their strongholds, fragmented from one another, and generally got picked off or bought off group by group over the ensuing months.
One of the men arriving with Rhodes’s relief column was Robert Baden-Powell, an army scout who will bring us to this date’s feature execution.
Baden-Powell was dispatched with a squadron of cavalry to pacify the area northeast of Bulwayo. When he arrived there, one of the main rebel chiefs in the Somabula Forest, Chief Uwini, had just been taken prisoner.
“He was badly wounded in the shoulder, but, enraged at being a prisoner, he would allow nothing to be done for him; no sooner had the surgeon bandaged hi than he tore the dressings off again. He was a fine, truculent-looking savage, and boasted that he had always been able to hold his own against any enemies in this stronghold of his, but now that he was captured he only wished to die.”
This prisoner put Baden-Powell in a conundrum. He had written orders to turn prisoners over to the Native Commission for civil handling (whether trial or otherwise).
Uwini had been induced to surrender by another officer’s promise to spare his life. However, this wounded chief could not be escorted five days back to Bulawayo by a force large enough to protect against the likely rescue attempt by his followers without abandoning his mission. Neither could Uwini be brought along on the patrol.
Something had to give.
Baden-Powell decided it would be the safe-conduct promise.
“I have taken another step, which I hope you will not disapprove of — viz. — trying Uweena by Court Martial,” Baden-Powell wrote his superiors on September 13. “He is the big chief of this part, we have lots of evidence that he instigated rebellion and murders of whites, he is badly wounded, we cannot send him to Buluwayo, and I must be leaving this with some of the senior officers tonight. So if the court find him guilty and sentence him to be shot I shall take on myself the responsibility of confirming it. The effect too should be very good for being carried out promptly and at his own stronghold — and we have a good number of rebels, prisoners and refugees, here to witness it & report it to the remainder.”
Another letter dated later that same day confirmed that the expected sentence had indeed been rendered, and Uwini had been ceremoniously shot that evening at sunset before the walls of the enemy fortress, in the presence of as many witnesses as Baden-Powell could find.
This quasi-juridical field execution put Baden-Powell in front of a court of inquiry after the fact. The court exonerated him, citing the circumstances and the purported effect of the execution in cowing the local insurgents.
Despite leaving the court of inquiry “without a stain on my character,” in Baden-Powell’s own words, this incident can’t help but throw a morally questionable shade for later observers. And this agent of empire does have later observers — because Lord Baden-Powell (as he eventually became styled) would go on to found the Scout Movement. His 1907 boys scouting camp and subsequent book laid the foundation for the ensuing decades’ Anglo scouting tradition.
And this very Matabele War contributed crucial parts of the scouting backstory. It was in the course of this campaign that Baden-Powell became acquainted with the American scout and adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham. The two struck up a lifelong friendship, and Baden-Powell cribbed notes from the ranger’s guile (like wood “scoutcraft”) his counterpart had picked up on the dwindling American frontier. It was also in Rhodesia that Baden-Powell first wore the Stetson hat and neckerchief combination that would become a distinctive look both for Baden-Powell himself, and for the scout movement he launched.
* As of this story’s setting, the place in question had just begun to be called Rhodesia.
** It is in the context of Great Britain’s colonial adventures in Africa in this period (though not specifically just those of Matabeleland) that Hilaire Belloc published his 1898 poem “The Modern Traveller”. In it, a character named “Blood” gave this early machine gun its definitive literary tribute: it’s the couplet highlighted below, but the larger excerpt may be illuminating.
Blood understood the Native mind.
He said: “We must be firm but kind.”
A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
He marked them in their rude advance,
He hushed their rebel cheers ;
With one extremely vulgar glance
He broke the Mutineers.
(I have a picture in my book
Of how he quelled them with a look.)
We shot and hanged a few, and then
The rest became devoted men.
And here I wish to say a word
Upon the way my heart was stirred
By those pathetic faces.
Surely our simple duty here
Is both imperative and clear;
While they support us, we should lend
Our every effort to defend,
And from a higher point of view
To give the full direction due
To all the native races.
And I, throughout the expedition,
Insisted upon this position.
On this day in 1864, Private George Nelson of Company F of the 13th United States Colored Troops was hanged for rape in Nashville, Tennessee.
He committed his crime on November 13, 1863. Nelson and two other men were on Nashville Pike outside of the town of Dickson when they encountered an unmarried white woman named, no lie, Indiana Jones.
They asked her where she lived and she said her house was about a mile away. The men claimed they’d been fighting with some rebels near her house and said she must go with them.
Miss Jones refused, and Nelson threatened to shoot her if she did not comply. She went with him for about 250 yards, begging him to release her. Private Nelson put a bayonet to her side and told her to come into the woods with him or he would run her through. Miss Jones started crying then, and he threatened to strangle her with a rope if she did not shut up. They went into the woods together while the other two men held the horse.
As Miss Jones later testified, “I again begged of him to let me go, when he cocked his gun and said if I did not be still he would blow my brains out. He then took hold of me, threw me down, and committed a rape on my person.”
When he was done he robbed her of $1.50, but the other soldiers made him give the money back. Then they let her go.
George Nelson’s accomplices were tried separately, and on cross-examination the victim was asked, “Did you use your utmost endeavors to prevent him from executing his desires, or did you simply cry out, thus yielding a tacit consent?”
As if she could have done anything else with a gun trained on her!
The three defendants were all court-martialed. President Lincoln approved the death sentence for Nelson in August 1864 and he hanged the following month. His partners-in-crime got twelve and ten years in prison respectively.
Early this morning in 1970, in the prison at Cajamarca, Peru, Ubilberto Vasquez Bautista was shot for the slaughter of a young shepherdess.
The young girl — either 9 or 11 years old — had been raped, then stabbed 27 times.
Udilberto Vasquez was found with some blood incriminatingly all over his underwear. Though he never admitted guilt, his story went through a few iterations, one of which entailed pointing the finger at his brother. (… with whom he shared underwear, I guess.)
Basically desperate for any angle, his attorney pushed that as a defense.
As one might readily infer from his presence on these pages, not that defense nor any other sufficed to save his client’s life.
Rather, Vasquez became the first victim (Spanish link, as are nearly all those that follow) of draconian new legislation imposed by the Juan Velasco Alvarado dictatorship reinstating capital punishment for fatal sexual assaults on particularly young victims.** This law was only in place from 1969 to 1973, so it was bad timing as much as anything for Udilberto Vasquez. (Peru’s 1979 constitution would restrict the death penalty to wartime treason.)
In execution, Vasquez joined the curious pantheon of Latin American folk saints comprised of ordinary criminals (usually ones thought to be innocent). Vasquez had converted in prison to the Adventist Church, and some fellow inmates believed he had the power to work miracles.
Such divine providence necessarily implies a view of its author’s innocence in that whole rape-murder thing. Among followers, the attorney’s notion of Vasquez’s brother’s culpability — and still more, the sacrificial concept that Vasquez willingly gave himself to protect his brother (which seems at odds with Vasquez blaming his brother) — has improved into a mythic truism.
“A youth of about twenty-one, weak, sickly, with a stiff right arm,” Jason had a thing for 18-year-old “neighbor” (they lived more than a mile apart) Elizabeth Fales and she for him, but the Fales family opposed the romance.
So one day in May 1801, Fairbanks “told two of his friends, that he should meet [Fales] in the pasture on Monday, and endeavour to induce her to go off with him, and marry him; and that if she refused to do so he would attempt her chastity.”*
Evidently she just wasn’t that into him, because later that day of their rendezvous, Jason weirdly showed up at the Fales house covered in blood with a cock-and-bull story about how Eliza had committed suicide and he, Jason, had tried and failed to follow suit. Jason Fairbanks was indeed seriously injured (he convalesced in his victim’s family’s house), but Eliza’s wounds were the more interesting: her throat was slashed — she was still breathing faintly through her gashed windpipe when found — and she had stab wounds in her arms and between her shoulder blades.
It’s an atypical suicide who stabs herself in the back.
There was, of course, the matter of Fairbanks’s crippled arm (so did he really overpower Eliza?) and his own injuries (so was it a fight, or what?) — sufficient ambiguity for dueling attorneys to spin every manner of hypothetical to account for the maximum or minimum villainy of the suspect.
But when a dude says he’s off to attempt the chastity of a virtuous young woman and she emerges from the encounter with a stab in the back and a slash through the throat, he’s going to have a hard time repelling the charge. Fairbanks was easily convicted of murder on August 8.
Nine days later, or rather nights, this young-love tragedy took an even more amazing turn: Fairbanks’s friends broke him out of prison. Newspapers all over America were soon raising the hue and cry
STOP THE MURDERER
1000 Dollars Reward
The absconding of Jason Fairbanks from the jail of Dedham has excited much interest in the breasts of every one who regard the peace of society and the security of life; it will be the duty of the citizens of the United States to exert themselves in securing the condemned criminal without pecuniary reward, but as that may be the means of stimulating many who would otherwise be inactive, a large gratuity is now offered. Every newspaper printed in the U.S. it is hoped will publish the advertisement of the Sheriff … and by other means extend the hue and cry against him. (Quoted here)
Despite the bulletins, Fairbanks made it all the way to Whitehall on the southern tip of Lake Champlain, where a hired boat waited to carry him to freedom in Canada. Instead of boarding ASAP, Fairbanks and his escort paused for a parting breakfast on the very morning of the prospective embarkation — it’s the most important meal of the day, you know — and the fugitive was there apprehended addressing his table, steps away from safety.
* 1801 murder pamphlet, “A Correct and Concise Account of the Interesting Trial of Jason Fairbanks”
** We couldn’t help but enjoy this explanation for the murder published in the Philadelphia Gazette of the United States as part of an unsigned “Letter from Dedham”: “Fairbanks had been seduced previous to his becoming a murderer, by some European travellers; and joined with a society of Jacobin Deists, who held their meetings in this town. Among other of their tenets, they avowed that a rigid observance of chastity in man or woman was ridiculous; being contrary to natural impulse.” Dedham was to Federalists of 1801 sort of what San Francisco is to the present-day Tea Party, thanks in large measure to a ridiculous case recently charging a so-called “Jacobin” under the ridiculous Alien and Sedition Acts; there was an abortive attempt in the Federalist press to ascribe Fairbanks’s jailbreak to a revolutionary mob.