Posts filed under 'Execution'

1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings

Add comment June 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.

While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.

The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.

It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.

The Irish network RTE exhumed these once-past Killings at Coolacrease in a 2007 broadcast —

— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)

This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.

The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.

Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.

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1900: Benjamin Snell, electricity in his head

Add comment June 29th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

As the rope was placed around his throat:

“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”

– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900

“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.


* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.

** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.


San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.

The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.

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1816: Five Ely and Littleport rioters

Add comment June 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1816, England hanged five men for a bread riot.

The war against Napoleon, only just concluded, had from 1812 enthroned a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary government under the Earl of Liverpool.

The 1810s were rough years for England’s working population, and distinguished by violent class conflict whose suppression was among the Crown’s chief cares.

The particular locus of conflict here is the most pressing and ancient in civilization: the price of bread.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had embargoed continental Europe’s trade with Britain. With the Corsican’s end, the Tory government had in 1815 enacted Corn Laws protecting English grain markets from a sudden onset of competition.

This sop to the Tories’ landowner supporters propped up the already inflated price of bread and triggered social unrest throughout Great Britain.

Preoccupied as she was by the specter of Jacobinism, London could hardly imagine that even geology was conspiring against her: the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global volcanic winter that made 1816 a year without a summer in the northern hemisphere — crippling agriculture across Europe.

But the bottom line was that war-inflated grain prices having fallen precipitously in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat turned right around and spiked back up once British farmers were protected from import competition. Wages, it need hardly be said, did not enjoy a similar spike; to the contrary, they were suppressed by the legions of demobilized soldiers who returned from Waterloo in glory to discover a ruinous cost of living with scant prospect for employment. Dr. Marjorie Bloy contends that Britons “suffered more, economically, socially, and politically” during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than during their prosecution.

Landholders as a class had gained more than anyone else from the preceding generation of warfare and its attendant embargo, and not neglected to aggressively enclose more and more acreage on which to raise their ever more lucrative produce. Their transparent cupidity in gouging from the hard-won peace chagrined their countrymen. In “Age of Bronze” (1823), Lord Byron skewered the sententious patriotism of “The landed interest — (you may understand / The phrase much better leaving out the land)”:

See these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Farmers of war, dictators of the farm;
Their ploughshare was the sword in hireling hands,
Their fields manured by gore of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle — why? for rent!
Year after year they voted cent per cent,
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions — why? for rent!
They roar’d, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England — why then live? — for rent!
The peace has made one general malcontent
Of these high-market patriots; war was rent!
Their love of country, millions all mis-spent,
How reconcile? by reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No: down with every thing, and up with rent!
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion — rent, rent, rent!

On May 22, 1816, some residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Littleport collected at a local pub to commiserate with one another about this common grievance.

Fortified by their tankards, the crowd spilled out into the streets and began abusing their most prosperous neighbors — in some cases merely menacing them; in others, invading and looting homes, extorting money, and gorging on wine.

A Rev. John Vachell fled the unfolding riot to the nearby (and larger) town of Ely where he alerted authorities. By daybreak, the Ely rioters, now swollen to a mob of hundreds and armed with pitchforks and guns, had arrived at Ely too. There local grandees engaged them in a dilatory negotiation with liberal wage concessions to mellow the mood — while the dragoons, cavalry, and militia that had been called for at Rev. Vachell’s first alarm were being summoned from Bury St. Edmunds.

They did not arrive until late the afternoon of the 23rd, and were not able to press their confrontation with the unrulies until the following day.

A small-scale but frightening urban skirmish took place on May 24 with rioters firing at the gendarmes from houses and the soldiers returning same, until the crowd was pinned down at last in the George and Dragon and from there its members either surrendered or scattered to flight.

Out of an estimated 300 or so rioters, about 80 went to trial, and 24 received capital sentences — all of this taking place within a month after events. The court understood in imposing its sentences that the punitive bloodbath would be a bit more constrained: 19 sentences were commuted, many of them joining comrades who had been directly sentenced to convict transportation.

William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley, and Thomas South were the five left to pay for the day’s excesses; their black-shrouded gallows-cart had to be rented from Cambridge lest a local provisioner incur the wrath of the populace.

Hauled to the suitably evil-sounding “Parnell Pits”, they were swung off after making penitential remarks submitting to the justice of their doom. As an example, Dennis (who also managed to attribute his end to those old gallows saws, “Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company”) begged the crowd come to watch him die to “refrain from breaking the laws of your country! Remember the words o the Judge, that tried us for the crimes for which we are now going to suffer, who said, ‘The law of the land will always be too strong for its assailants, and those who defy the law, will, in the end, be subdued by the law, and be compelled to submit to its justice or its mercy.'” (Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, July 6, 1816)

Though the speaker evidently meant his words earnestly, some of those onlookers scrabbling to afford their daily bread must have heard them with a certain amount of bitterness. To argue the law’s strength is not to argue its justice.

But the address, and the strangulation that its author was put to directly thereafter, served their purpose. Cambridgeshire’s fens became quiescent — though it was very far from deterring the rest of the English working class.


Memorial to the executed rioters at St. Mary’s church, Ely. ((cc) image from John McCullough)

The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846.

* Edward Christian, older brother of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely (not a literal island) and one of the presiding magistrates at the rioters’ tribunal.

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1621: Christenze Kruckow, philanthropic witch

2 comments June 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.

Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.

From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.

On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.

But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.

Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.

In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.

* Or 17. Sources vary, but you’d lose count too.

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1483: Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers

1 comment June 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, was beheaded with his nephew Sir Richard Grey and royal chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan at Pontefract Castle.*

These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.

This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.

But while heads were still attached to shoulders, Woodville employed his in literary pursuits: he’s credited with publishing (via the pioneering English printer William Caxton) some of the very first books in English: Earl Rivers’s own translation into “right good and fayr Englyssh” of Jean Mielot‘s Cordyale, or Four last thinges (image); and, the 1477 Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, another Rivers translation that he knocked out while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It’s distinguished as the first English printed book that dates itself (November 18, 1477).


Earl Rivers presents Edward IV with the fruits of movable type.

But for sure, circa Regna tonat — especially here during the long-running War of the Roses for control of the English throne.

The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)

After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.

But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

-Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act 1, Scene 3

The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.

Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.

Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.

Glories are fleeting. Two years later, Richard III was unhorsed, too.

“I dye in right, beware you dye not in wrong.”

-Purported last words of Sir Thomas Vaughan

* There are some citations equivocating on Vaughan’s precise death-date. Yet another man, Sir Richard Haute (Hawte) is also sometimes numbered a fourth in the doomed party; however, a man of this name took part in Buckingham’s Rebellion against King Richard III, and received a pardon in 1485.

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1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich condemned and fatally knouted

1 comment June 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.

Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.

The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.

Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.

Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.

Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.

The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.

“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.

Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.

Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.

Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”

Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.

The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.

And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.

Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.

“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.

Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.

Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.

And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.

This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?

Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.

He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.

Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)

Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.

Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.

What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.

On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.

But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.

By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.

Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.

Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.

* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.

** Ancestor of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, a man who did not like executions.

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1906: Richard Ivens, hypnotized?

Add comment June 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1906, “with terror stamped on his colorless face and almost in a state of collapse,” Richard Ivens hanged for a murder that remains to this day an unsettling indictment of witness reliability — even when it is his own crime the witness describes.

The tenor of the crime and of its consequent sensation — a Chicago society matron sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum who proceeds to garrot her with a wire — is readily apparent in the headlines of the day; editors from coast to coast plunged into their thesauruses to titillate their subscribers with the most bombastic invective


Baltimore American, Jan. 14, 1906.

As this image also indicates, Ivens confessed soon after he was detained. (He reported finding, or “finding”, the body to his father and the two of them went to the police; the police immediately detained the youth, separated from Ivens pere.)

Usually, a confession is the “and shut” part of an open-and-shut case. Indeed, for most of human history, given a paucity of useful forensic evidence, legal cases have come down to eyewitnesses and confessions: hence the formalization of torture as part of the investigative process courts of bygone years.* A perpetrator’s own testimony against himself is the evidentiary gold standard.

Today, this long-unquestioned bedrock of criminal justice is dissolving. A quarter or more of the wrongful-conviction exonerations from death row have been cases involving false confessions; witness testimony by victims or third parties has frequently been shown to be unreliable. Our behavioral models once implied that the brain stored memories like a faithful photograph, a view suggesting that witnesses could be either accurate or liars without much room in between. Today, it’s ever more widely understood that memories are constructed, and reconstructed, amid the interpolations of fragmentary data and the subtle feedback of others’ suggestion and influence.

But Ivens put this idea to the test more than a century ago. Backed by friendly alibi witnesses who placed him away from the scene of the murder, Ivens recanted his confession and “declared that the police locked him up in a room at the police station with a number of officers and that their questioning so confused him that he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked him.”**

Perhaps this was just the gambit of a desperate defense counsel with few cards to play. But it did briefly make the Ivens case a referendum on the reliability of the confession.

Ivens intimated that the circumstances of his interrogation might have intimidated him into confessing, but his subsequent claim to have no memory at all of those events led a defense “alienist”, J. Sanderson Christison, to argue that the whole story of the crime had been planted in his mind when he was in a hypnotic state.

According to Christison, this Chicago Tribune photo of the accused a few hours after his arrest “shows the hypnotic expression of face in passive attitude.”

Christon’s pamphlet excoriating the way the young man was handled makes interesting reading. Titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Ivens”, its core thesis that Ivens was “dominated by police statements” is a strikingly forward-thinking one.†

we find in the “confessions” a mixture of fact with “suggested” fiction … he was first forcefully charged with the crime in a brutal manner and after being confounded and subjugated, a current of leading questions were put to him on a stupid police hypothesis, so that the first “confession” is composed of a few vague and contradictory statements. And it is both evident and acknowledged that all the other official “confessions” are the products of question suggestions, almost entirely.

For Christison, Ivens was a dull and easily controlled personality; the doctor’s explication of “hypnosis” suggests to modern eyes a laughably Mephistophelean sleepy, verrrry sleeeeepy caricature. But maybe we would do better to view it as the best framework available in 1906 to grasp the incomprehensible circumstance of a person accusing himself of a crime: the most ready illustration of outside influences entering the mind. A century later, we are only just now developing an understanding of wrongful confessions that might be shared widely enough to speak with mutual understanding about disorientation, suggestibility, leading questions, confirmation bias, and the malleability of memory.

But by any name, the notion was not ridiculous to Christison’s peers.

Christison consulted with Hugo Munsterburg, the German-American psychologist credited with founding the field of forensic psychology: Munsterburg shared Christison’s opinion, and expounded on it (without mentioning Ivens by name) in his subsequent magnum opus On The Witness Stand:

the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion.

I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confesslon. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed — he at least was not to escape the gallows.

For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as “another way of possibly cheating justice” and as a method tending “towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law,” the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice.

[I]f I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be “inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt.” Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and “thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker’s wagon to leave the jail yard.” The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really “inconceivable” that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant. Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that “murder will out.” The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not “out.”

It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it “in” into an innocent consciousness. Of course in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession, provided that it is reliable and well proved. If the accused acknowledges in express words the guilt in a criminal charge, the purpose of the procedure seems to have been reached; and yet at all times and in all nations experience has suggested a certain distrust of confessions.

Munsterburg wrote this under the heading of “Untrue Confessions” but he did not exempt himself from susceptibility to the hypnotic tricks of the mind: Munsterburg himself once found his house burgled, and realized that the evidence he subsequently gave about what he found was wildly inaccurate. “In spite of my best intentions, in spite of good memory and calm mood, a whole series of confusions, of illusions, of forgetting, of wrong conclusions, and of yielding to suggestions were mingled with what I had to report under oath, and my only consolation is the fact that in a thousand courts at a thousand places all over the world, witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth, combinations of memory and of illusion, of knowledge and of suggestion, of experience and wrong conclusions.”

We do know at a minimum that Ivens was being interrogated alone for a number of hours by officers who evidently presumed him to be guilty. Right down to the present day, any number of fully cogent adults (many still languishing in dungeons as I write this) have falsely implicated themselves in terrible crimes during similar confinements, under manipulative interrogation techniques evincing much more interest in getting to “yes” than probing truth. (Just one of many reasons we caution the reader against ever talking to the police.)


Lexington Herald, March 20, 1906.

The Richard Ivens case, needless to say, is impossibly cold. It is quite difficult from several generations’ distance to form a convincing affirmative confidence in Ivens’s innocence. But as all those involved for good or ill have gone to their own graves too, perhaps it is enough for us to leave that door open just crack — enough to let in the humility before we print a man’s epitaph.


Wilkes-Barre Times, June 22, 1906.

* Of relevance: a suspect tortured into a confession was usually required to repeat the confession free of torture in open court in order for it to count. Such people did sometimes refuse to do so and even blame the torture for having given a previous incriminating statement; the standard reward for such reticence was, naturally, more torture.

** Baltimore American, March 20, 1906. This is the Chicago Police Department we’re talking about.

† Christison is also noted for theories about the shapes of the ears as criminal indicators, and the pamphlet explicitly cites Ivens’s phrenological characteristics as exculpatory. We all have our hits and our misses.

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1600: John Rigby, lay martyr

1 comment June 21st, 2015 Headsman

Most of Catholicism’s “40 Martyrs of England and Wales” were priests executed as traitors for preaching the Old Faith.

John Rigby, drawn and quartered on this date in 1600, is distinguished as the rare layman among their number.

The guy should be the patron saint of dutiful employees. He was in the service of Sir Edmund Huddleston when the master’s daughter was summoned to the Old Bailey on suspicion of Catholic backsliding. (“Recusancy”)

The daughter was sick, so Rigby appeared on her behalf … and since they were all dressed up for the occasion, Queen Elizabeth’s Javerts just started asking Rigby about his religious scruples.

Rigby owned that he had gone Catholic and stopped attending Anglican services two or three years before and was immediately thrown into Newgate, tortured, and condemned to die.

Repeatedly offered his life to apostatize, even en route to his scaffold, Rigby cheerfully refused.

When the rope was to be put about his neck, he first kissed it, and then began to speak to the people, but was interrupted by More, the sheriff’s deputy, bidding him pray for the queen, which he did very affectionately. Then the deputy asked him, what traitors dost thou know in England? God is my witness, said he, I know none. What! saith the deputy again, if he will confess nothing, drive away the cart; which was done so suddenly, that he had no time to say any thing more, or recommend his soul again to God, as he was about to do.

The deputy shortly after commanded the hangman to cut him down, which was done so soon, that he stood upright on his feet, like to a man a little amazed, till the butchers threw him down: then coming perfectly to himself, he said aloud and distinctly, God forgive you. Jesus receive my soul. And immediately another cruel fellow standing by, who was no officer, but a common porter, set his foot upon Mr. Rigby’s throat, and so held him down, that he could speak no more. Others held his arms and legs whilst the executioner dismembered and bowelled him. And when he felt them pulling out his heart, he was yet so strong that he thrust the men from him who held his arms. At last they cut off his head and quartered him, and disposed of his head and quarters in several places in and about Southwark. The people going away, complained very much of the barbarity of the execution; and generally all sorts bewailed his death.

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1816: Peter Lung, uxoricide

Add comment June 20th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1816, middle-aged uxoricide Peter Lung was hanged in Middletown, Connecticut for the murder of his wife the previous year.

The facts of the case are simple: both Mr. and Mrs. Lung were alcoholics. Peter, a laborer, thought it was all right for him for drink as much as he wanted, but he was violently opposed to his wife Lucy doing any tippling of her own. But tipple she did, and she and her husband had frightful quarrels about it.

On July 15, 1815, Peter came home late. He found the front door wide open, no dinner on the table, and Lucy passed out cold in her bed and reeking of liquor. Her husband violently kicked her awake and then told her to make him some dinner. She told him to go fix his own food if he was so hungry.

Things went downhill from there and the argument ended with Peter punching his wife several times and then kicking her in the backside. He then went out to the garden and dug up some vegetables for the family dinner. The couple passed the rest of the night normally — for their argument, violent though it was, was typical for them.

A day or so later, Lucy began complaining that her right side was hurting her. Her side hurt too badly for her to lie down two days after the beating and she fell asleep in her rocking chair, and never woke up. The autopsy showed she’d died of internal injuries: evidently Peter’s kicks had ruptured something inside her.

He was charged with capital murder. He had a long-standing habit of mistreating his wife, and everyone knew it. The jury was decidedly unsympathetic to his protests that he’d never meant to kill her.

The Lung case is one of those miscarriages of justice that people often don’t think about: where a person is indeed culpable, but not necessarily guilty as charged. Peter obviously did not intend homicide when he and his wife had their last fight, and neither of them were aware that he’d seriously injured her until it was far too late. Certainly he was responsible for Lucy’s death, but was it manslaughter more than murder?

Connecticut’s judiciary was aware of this issue, and Lung’s original conviction in September 1815 was actually overturned as a result. But he was re-convicted of the same charge at his second trial in December. It was probably his bad reputation that ultimately doomed him.

He was hanged before “a multitude, amounting as was supposed to eleven or twelve thousand.” It was the third execution in Middlesex County.

Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, July 1, 1816.

The deportment of the prisoner on this awful occasion, was such as to justify a strong hope that by a sincere and timely repentance, he had found the mercy of his Saviour equal to the greatness and enormity of his guilt. He conversed freely on his past life — declared that he believed his wife died in consequence of the wounds he gave her, but denied that he ever intended her death — He fully acquiesced in the justice of his sentence; — that his life was justly forfeited and that it was an atonement due from him to the offended laws of society.

During the religious solemnities previous to his execution, his deportment manifested resignation and composure. He marched with the guard to the fatal spot, ascended the Gallows, warned the silent and solemn auditory, against the evils of intemperance, and ungoverned passions; and a few minutes before four o’clock, was launched into eternity. The official duty of the execution was performed with great propriety and with such fatal exactness that the unfortunate sufferer sunk into the arms of Death without a single struggle, and almost in the same moment, was a tenant of both worlds. The day was pleasant, and few occasions of this kind we believe, have drawn together a greater concourse of spectators.

Among the immense crowd assembled in this place to witness the execution last week, a regular company of pick-pockets was present, which must have enriched their finds very considerably, as a number of gentlemen were deprived of their Pocket Books, containing money and notes to a large amount, with a dexterity which would do honor to the most regular bred gentry in the streets of London. A very valuable horse was also taken from a stable in this city, the night succeeding.

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1857: George Sharpe and John Johnson, Edwardsville murderers

Add comment June 19th, 2015 Headsman

From the Alton Weekly Courier, June 25, 1857, under a June 20 dateline.

Yesterday being the day appointed for the execution of the murderers of Jacob Barth, we dispatched one of our Assistants to Edwardsville, in order that from personal observation we might be able to correctly report the proceedings of this melancholy occasion at the earliest moment. The following is as full and concise a sketch as could be prepared after his return late yesterday evening, and contains, we believe, all the particulars in which our readers would likely feel an interest.

The Day and The Crowd

The weather was very favorable, the day being mild and pleasant. The sun shone clear and warm, but not oppressively so; the recent rains had settled the dust, but had not made any mud, and the roads were consequently in good traveling condition. The rarity of capital executions in this part of the country, together with the recent and very exciting history of this case, conspired to draw out a tremendous crowd of people to witness this the last and severest penalty of the law. It was estimated that there were between seven and eight thousand persons present, some of whom had come from a distance of fifty miles. They were of all ages, sexes, conditions and complexions. A large portion of them were Germans* — friends, relatives and countrymen of the murdered man. Very much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow, we observed a large number of females among the spectators — we say “females,” for we scarcely feel at liberty to designate them as either women or ladies, for we have always thought, and had good reason to think, that every feeling and attribute of a true woman’s nature would generate in her bosom an unconquerable repugnance to voluntarily witnessing any such revolting scenes under any circumstances in the world. Many of the females who were at the place of execution yesterday, and who witnessed the infliction of the dreadful death penalty with the same coolness and indifference as the men generally manifested, were young, and would have been pretty anywhere else and under ordinary circumstances. Why they attended, or what could have induced them to be present at all, we cannot possibly conceive; and in recording the fact that they were there, we feel that their loving, and noble, and gentle sex is by that fact disgraced.

The Prisoners

It is already known to our readers that Robert Sharpe, the younger of the two brothers condemned, has been sent to the State’s Prison for life, under commutation of sentence by Gov. Bissell. The other two – George W. Sharpe, tried and condemned under the name of George Gibson, and John Johnson, who, until after his trial bore the false name of Edward Barber — have been closely attended by Rev. E. M. West and other clergymen, and have appeared to be truly penitent for their crimes. For several days before their execution, they both seemed fully resigned to their fate, and prepared to meet and try the dread realities of eternity; but yesterday morning Sharpe yielded to despondent and despairing feelings, and seemed to suffer dreadfully with fear and terror during the last few hours of his life. The prisoners were both young, heavy set, and rather good-looking men. They evidently had been possessed of healthy and vigorous frames, capable of performing much labor. In preparation for the last scene of their lives. Sheriff Job had arrayed the unfortunate men in very neat suits of clothing, of the ordinary style and fashion, and of perfect snowy whiteness in every particular; they were also cleanly shaved and looked extremely well. Sharpe had two sisters and two brothers, including the one now in the Penitentiary; Johnson had four sisters and four brothers; the parents of both are all living yet; but no relative or even acquaintance who knew them before they committed the murder was beside them in their last trying hour.

The Procession

At half past one o’clock the Sheriff placed the prisoners in a neat and comfortable hack which had been provided, and in which they were conveyed at a slow pace to the place of execution. The carriage was escorted by a portion of the Madison Guards, under command of Captain J. Sloss, fully armed and equipped. A large concourse of spectators followed, but observed good order and decorum. The procession passed along the main street of the town, through its entire length. The prisoners occupied themselves in singing and prayer all the time after they left the prison.

The Scaffold

The spot chosen for the execution was in a ravine east of town, and on the County Poor House Grounds. The scaffold was a neat and substantial structure, as perfectly adapted to its use as anything could be. It was surrounded by rising ground in every direction, so that every person in the vast assemblage could obtain a perfect and near view of the awful tragedy. An area had been laid off by a temporary enclosure, which was guarded by a detachment of the Madison Guards, under command of Lieut. J. G. Robinson, no one being allowed to enter without the permission of the Sheriff.

The Scene at the Scaffold

After those whose duty or privilege it was had ascended to the platform of the scaffold, Sheriff Jon briefly addressed the assembled multitude. He said he was there in his official capacity to perform an unpleasant duty, in executing upon two of his fellow men the severest penalty provided by our laws for the violation of its enactments. Exceedingly unpleasant as was this duty, it was yet a duty, and should be faithfully performed. The example thus set ought not to be lost upon those who had come to witness it. The persons — and specially the youth — of that vast assemblage should take warning from the terrible fate of the two young men so soon to be hurried to the dread presence of an offended God, and avoid the crimes that so justly and so certainly lead to this terrible end. Rev. E. M. West then spoke at some length in explanation of the manner in which and the reasons why the commutation of the sentence of Robert Sharpe had been petitioned for and granted. We cannot possibly give even a skeleton of his remarks in this issue; perhaps we may do so tomorrow. Mr. West then closed with a brief and earnest admonitory exhortation suited to the occasion. The Sheriff then extended a permission — even an invitation — to the prisoners to address the audience, of which Johnson immediately availed himself. He said he stood before his hearers a cold-blooded murderer, of which crime he had been found guilty, and for which he was soon to be so terribly yet so justly punished. In a few minutes, he and one of his companions in guilt would be suddenly launched into eternity, and sent into the presence of the great God whose laws they had violated, with the blood of their victim yet red upon their hands. But he had a humble hope that he had made his peace with God, and that although his crime had been great, his salvation was sure. His soul was at peace; he had no malice in his heart, and he was ready and willing to meet the Judge of all the earth. His punishment although terrible was just, and he was prepared to meet it. If he had remained at home during his early youth and obeyed the pious instructions of his mother, he would not now have been on the scaffold a condemned murderer. He hoped all the youth who heard him would take warning by his example, he influenced by the counsels of their good and pious mothers, keep out of bad company and bad habits and thus avoid the terrible fate that had so soon overtaken him Johnson spoke with much feeling and earnestness and manifested deep emotion while speaking. His remarks were very appropriate to the occasion, and were listened to with respectful attention. Sharpe seemed to desire to speak but was so overcome with the horrors of his situation he was unable to do so. Rev. J. B. Corrington then addressed to the audience a few very appropriate remarks. He had once thought that a saving repentance in view of the certainty of death was almost if not quite an impossibility, but in the two interviews he had had with the condemned in prison, he had received grounds for hope that their repentance was thorough and sincere, and of course acceptable. He hoped, however, none of his hearers would trust their salvation to a death-pending repentance. We have positive evidence of the efficacy of but one such; and God had placed this one case on record in His Holy Word that none might despair, and but the one that none should presume. Mr. Corrington closed with a brief but earnest and heart stirring prayer, in which the prisoners, standing and with clasped hands, joined audibly.

The Execution

The prisoners then shook hands with and took an affectionate leave of each other, the Sheriff and his deputies and the attending clergymen. Johnson seemed perfectly composed and met his fate without exhibiting the least symptom of fear or even regret. He stood erect and without trembling, retained the ruddy natural glow of health in his face, and as much firmness and calmness of mind as in an ordinary business transaction. Often he would clasp his hands, and a smile of apparently perfect happiness would overspread his features. He seemed perfectly willing — even anxious, for his last moment to come. When the Sheriff told them to step on the drop, he turned to his companion and said, “George, which side would you rather stand on?” Sharpe was terribly affected, and was really a pitiable object to behold. His eyes seemed to have almost lost all expression, and exhibited nothing but a glassy, death-like stare; his face was ashy pale, and showed no color save a livid purple hue; his hands were alternately and convulsively clasped and raised in supplication, and he constantly gave utterance to heart-rending moans or incoherent prayers. When requested to step forward upon the drop, he obeyed, exclaiming, “O Lord! have mercy on me! I dare not die! I’m afraid I’m not prepared!” The ropes were adjusted round their necks, their arms were pinioned together across their backs, their hands tied, white muslin caps were drawn over their heads, and when all was ready, at a single stroke, Sheriff Jon severed the cord which held the supporters of the drop, and in an instant the unfortunate murderers were suspended in mid air in the agonies of death. They both struggled very much for more than a minute. In about two minutes after, they fell, Johnson ceased to manifest any signs of life. Sharpe continued to struggle, though less and less, for full five minutes. The knot of the noose had slipped round to the back of his head, and the fall had failed to break his neck; he therefore lived until he was literally choked to death. They both fell about five feet, and if the knot had remained in the right position, his neck would have been instantly broken, of course. After having hung full thirty minutes, the bodies were taken down, placed in handsome walnut coffins, and decently buried. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Sheriff Jon for the kind and considerate, yet firm and prompt manner in which he discharged the unpleasant duty that devolved upon him. The independent, manly and conscientious course he has pursued during the exciting and trying scenes that have occurred at our county seat during the past few weeks has won for him a still greater share of the popular favor of his constituents of which he before enjoyed so much.

* The victim was German; the young men, deep in their cups, murdered him because they took umbrage at Barth’s refusing them a ride. According to the New York Daily Tribune (May 29, 1857), a mob of some 400 lynch-minded Germans assembled in Edwardsville when the accused were granted a change of venue to a more “American” county — and even went so far as to throw up a gibbet before the Sheriff Job who eventually conducted the legal execution dissuaded his immigrant neighbors from effecting an extrajudicial one.

** Bissell was the first Republican governor of Illinois: in fact, one of the first Republican elected officials anywhere. He had previously distinguished a term in Congress (he was elected as a Democrat, before the 1854 founding of the GOP) with his naked contempt for the South’s delegates. For having the temerity to rebut exaggerated claims of Mississippian valor in the Mexican-American War, Bissell at one point prompted the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis to challenge him to a duel: surprisingly (to Davis) Bissell accepted, but word of the affair circulated in Washington and the sectional hotheads were made to cancel their rendezvous.

Here’s an 1858 letter to Bissell by Abraham Lincoln seeking (successfully) the pardon of two Logan County men convicted of stealing a few hogs.

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