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.
— 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.
(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.
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)
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)
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.
Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.
Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,
little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.
The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)
According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globedemurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”
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.
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.
On this date in 1862, seven federal raiders were hanged in Atlanta for the daring heist of a Confederate train two months prior. Among them were some of the very first Congressional Medal of Honor awardees.
In terms of its impact on the Civil War, the “Great Locomotive Chase” was a bust. But as pure Americana, you’ll have a hard job to top this caper.
The chase began a year to the day after the first shots had been fired between North and South. Despite the anniversary, the occasion promised nothing but the routine northbound passenger run for the locomotive General from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn.
This line was a spur of the Confederate rail network, and we have already noted in these pages the interest that network held for pro-Union saboteurs. Chattanooga was its great hub: telegraph and rail lines from every quarter of the Confederacy converged there like the center of a spiderweb.
For this reason, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who had just occupied Huntsville, Ala., aspired to swing his army north to strike this vital city. His bold commandos nonchalantly boarding the northbound train this day were part of Mitchel’s larger operation: cut the rail line from Atlanta to prevent timely reinforcement of Chattanooga, then quickly conquer the strategic city.* Gen. Mitchel was 28 miles from Chattanooga on April 12, 1862, and if his special agents could turn their trick then the whole course of the war might change.
Not long after 5 a.m. on that April 12, the General pulled into a depot at Big Shanty (today, Kennesaw, Ga.). It had a short layover there for breakfast at the adacent Lacey Hotel.
But more important to the raiders’ leader James J. Andrews was what Big Shanty did not have: a telegraph.
While the train’s passengers and crew were settling in for the most important meal of the day, Andrews’s raiders efficiently decoupled the locomotive, its coal tender, and three box cars from the passenger cars. Most of the raiders loaded into the boxcars to be ready as muscle for the crazy flight ahead. But the day was to be a match of speed and ingenuity between the Union daredevil Andrews, and the Confederate train conductor William Fuller — who for the start could only watch in astonishment over his coffee as his General unexpectedly pulled away.
With no telegraph in the vicinity, Fuller had no way to send word up the line to stop the General. But umbrage either patriotic or professional carried him from that first moment in a Javert-like pursuit of his commandeered locomotive.
Fuller dashed out of Big Shanty and up the train tracks on foot with his team. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: negotiating hilly terrain, the General would be making only 15 or 20 miles per hour at speed — and she stopped regularly, to foul the rails behind her, and to cut the telegraph wire. Throughout the chase, or at least until its very last stretch, the Union men managed to keep the next station ahead ignorant of the General‘s treasonable mission by snipping telegraph wire, so on the occasions when they had to stop and answer to a Western & Atlantic Railroad official they were able to bluff their way onward with a story about driving a “powder train” requisitioned by General Beauregard himself.
But those stops took time, and Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave Andrews’s raiders much of that to spare.
A couple of miles up the line, Fuller et al found an old handcar, and were able to take to the rails themselves. Near 20 miles into the chase, they were able to commandeer a short-line locomotive, which took them to Kingston where they switched to a mail train. Neither of these vehicles could match the General‘s horsepower; however, Andrews had to keep stopping to cut more telegraph wires or to pry up a rail, and he really got pegged back when the General had to defer to other rail traffic on the single-line route. For instance, the Union commandos spent a frustrating hour on the siding at Kingston waiting out southbound trains.
Andrews’s party did not know for sure at this point that there was a pursuer making good use of this hour. But even so, they had a challenge to spend the scarce resource of time with their hijacked locomotive to best effect.
The objective of the raid was to wreck the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail line, in a way that would put it out of commission for many days and give Gen. Mitchel leave to overwhelm Chattanooga — something like firing a bridge or collapsing a tunnel. The stops they made as they passed various stations to cut the telegraphs or laboriously crowbar up a bit of the rail were essential to give them the ability to cover the next few miles, and bluff past the next station. But thanks to Fuller’s pursuit, there was not after these time-consuming little acts of sabotage a sufficient opportunity to accomplish the tactical purpose of the hijacking.
An extensive collection of links and images relating to the entire route of the chase is here.
In the coolest final stage, the segment most properly called the “Great Locomotive Chase”, Fuller’s gang grabbed a southbound locomotive, the Texas, and without bothering to turn it around they slammed it into reverse in hot pursuit of the northbound General.
The federals in the General tried dropping timbers, and even cutting loose boxcars behind them as railbound battering rams aimed at their inexorable hunter. The Texas kept coming.
By the time the Union boys reached a wooden covered bridge over the Oostanaula, it was apparent that the locomotive would soon exhaust her fuel. Still, the churning plumes of the backward Texas loomed just a few minutes behind. In his last chance to do what he had set out for, Andrews torched his final remaining box car and released it into the wooden bridge, hoping to set the entire structure ablaze and collapse it into the river. Unhappily for the General‘s illicit crew, looking backwards with desperate hope as their ride chugged off, boards sodden by a week’s worth of springtime rain showers stubbornly refused to kindle … and then the Texas arrived to clear away the incendiary.
As its fuel dwindled and its adversary closed, the Generalcame to the end of her legendary run about 18 miles from Chattanooga. Andrews and party abandoned their engine to history and scattered into the woods — but none escaped the immediate Confederate manhunt.
The twenty raiders, plus two others who were supposed to be part of the operation but missed their rendezvous, were all court-martialed as spies: “lurking in and around Confederate camps as spies, for the purpose of obtaining information,” a description bearing very scant resemblance to their actual activities. Eight would hang on this basis.
The intrepid ringleader James Andrews, who was a civilian, was executed in Atlanta on June 7, all alone. His mates only learned of his fate while sitting at their trial in Chattanooga — an experience described in a memoir by one of their number, William Pittenger.
As the trial of different ones proceeded, we had still greater encouragement from the court itself. Members called on us, and told us to keep in good heart, as there was no evidence before them to convict any one. This cheered us somewhat, but there was still one thing which I did not like, and which looked as if something was wrong. The court would not let our boys be present to hear the pleading of counsel on either side, though they urgently requested it. They could neither hear what our lawyers had to say for them, nor what the Judge Advocate urged against them.
The trials proceeded rapidly. One man was taken out each day, and in about an hour returned. The table in the court room was covered with bottles, newspapers, and novels, and the court passed its time during trial in discussing these. This was very well if the trial was, as they said, a mere matter of formality; but if it was a trial in earnest, on which depended issues of life or death, it was most heartless conduct.
At last the number of seven was reached, and they would probably have proceeded in trying others, had not General Mitchel, who was continually troubling them, now advanced, and shelled Chattanooga from the opposite side of the Tennessee river. This at once broke up the court-martial, and sent the officers in hot haste to their regiments to resist his progress. Soon after, General Morgan advanced through Cumberland Gap, and threatened Knoxville, which also rendered it necessary to remove us.
Evacuated to Atlanta, they there “remained for a week in quietness and hope, thinking the worst of our trials were past,” Pettinger wrote. “Little did we foresee how fearful a storm was soon to burst over us.”
For its topicality to our site, we here excerpt Pettinger’s chapter 11 at some length:
One day while we were very merry, amusing ourselves with games and stories, we saw a squadron of cavalry approaching. This did not at first excite any attention, for it was a common thing to see bodies of horsemen in the streets; but soon we observed them halt at our gate, and surround the prison. What could this mean?
A moment after, the clink of the officers’ swords was heard as they ascended the stairway, and we knew that something unusual was about to take place. They paused at our door, threw it open, called the names of our seven companions, and took them out to the room opposite, putting the Tennesseeans in with us. One of our boys, named Robinson, was sick of a fever, and had to be raised to his feet, and supported out of the room.
With throbbing hearts we asked one another the meaning of these strange proceedings. Some supposed they were to receive their acquittal; others, still more sanguine, believed they were taken out of the room to be paroled, preparatory to an exchange.
I was sick, too, but rose to my feet, oppressed with a nameless fear. A half crazy Kentuckian, who was with the Tennesseeans, came to me and wanted to play a game of cards. I struck the greasy pack out of his hands, and bade him leave me.
A moment after, the door opened, and George D. Wilson entered, his step firm and his form erect, but his countenance pale as death. Some one asked a solution of the dreadful mystery, in a whisper, for his face silenced every one.
The raiders hanged June 18, 1862
William Hunter Campbell, a civilian
Pvt. Samuel Robertson
Sgt. Major Marion Ross
Sgt. John Scott
Pvt. Charles Shadrack
Pvt. Samuel Slavens
Pvt. George Davenport Wilson
“We are to be executed immediately,” was the awful reply, whispered with thrilling distinctness. The others came in all tied, ready for the scaffold. Then came the farewells — farewells with no hope of meeting again in this world! It was a moment that seemed an age of measureless sorrow.
Our comrades were brave; they were soldiers, and had often looked death in the face on the battle-field. They were ready, if need be, to die for their country; but to die on the scaffold — to die as murderers die — seemed almost too hard for human nature to bear.
Then, too, the prospect of a future world, into which they were thus to be hurled without a moment’s preparation, was black and appalling. Most of them had been careless, and had no hope beyond the grave. Wilson was a professed infidel, and many a time had argued the truth of the Christian religion with me for a half day at a time; but in this awful hour he said to me:
“Pittenger, I believe you are right, now! Oh! try to be better prepared when you come to die than I am.” Then, laying his hand on my head with a muttered “God bless you,” we parted.
Shadrack was profane and reckless, but good-hearted and merry. Now, turning to us with a voice, the forced calmness of which was more affecting than a wail of agony, he said:
“Boys, I am not prepared to meet Jesus.”
When asked by some of us in tears to think of heaven, he answered, still in tones of thrilling calmness, “I’ll try! I’ll try! But I know I am not prepared.”
Slavens, who was a man of immense strength and iron resolution, turned to his friend Buffum, and could only articulate, “Wife — children — tell” — when utterance failed.
Scott was married only three days before he came to the army, and the thought of his young and sorrowing wife nearly drove him to despair. He could only clasp his hands in silent agony.
All this transpired in a moment, and even then the Marshal and other officers standing by him in the door, exclaimed:
“Hurry up there! come on! we can’t wait!”
In this manner my poor comrades were hurried off. Robinson, who was too sick to walk, was dragged away with them. They asked leave to bid farewell to our other boys, who were confined in the adjoining room, but it was sternly refused!
Thus we parted. We saw the death cart containing our comrades drive off, surrounded by cavalry. In about an hour it came back empty. The tragedy was complete!
Later in the evening, the Provost-Marshal came to the prison, and, in reply to our questions, informed us that our friends “Had met their fate as brave men should die everywhere.”
The next day we obtained from the guards, who were always willing to talk with us in the absence of the officers, full particulars of the seven-fold murder.
When our companions were mounted on the scaffold, Wilson asked permission to say a few words, which was granted — probably in the hope of hearing some confession which would justify them in the murder they were about to commit. But this was not his intention. It was a strange stand — a dying speech to a desperate audience, and under the most terrible circumstances.
But he was equal to the occasion. Unterrified by the near approach of death, he spoke his mind freely. He told them that “they were all in the wrong; that he had no hard feelings toward the Southern people for what they were about to do, because they had been duped by their leaders, and induced by them to engage in the work of rebellion. He also said, that though he was condemned as a spy, yet he was none, and they well knew it. He was only a soldier in the performance of the duty he had been detailed to do; that he did not regret to die for his country, but only regretted the manner of his death. He concluded by saying that they would yet live to regret the part they had taken in this rebellion, and would see the time when the old Union would be restored, and the flag of our country wave over the very ground occupied by his scaffold.”
This made a deep impression on the minds of those who listened, and I often afterward heard it spoken of in terms of the highest admiration. When he ceased, the signal was given, and the traps fell!
Five only remained dangling in the air; for two of the seven, Campbell and Slavens, being very heavy men, broke the ropes, and fell to the ground insensible. In a short time they recovered, and asked for a drink of water, which was given them. Then they requested an hour to pray before entering the future world which lay so near and dark before them. This last petition was indignantly refused, and as soon as the ropes could be adjusted, they were compelled to re-ascend the scaffold, and were again turned off!
The whole proceeding, from beginning to end, was marked by the most revolting haste. They seemed to wish, by thus affording no time to prepare for death, to murder soul and body both. Even the worst criminals in our country are allowed some weeks to ask for God’s mercy, before they are thrust into his presence; but our poor boys, whose only crime was loving and trying to serve their country, were not allowed one moment! Could the barbarity of fiends go further?
That afternoon was one of deepest gloom for those who remained. We knew not how soon we might be compelled to follow in the same path, and drink the same bitter cup our comrades drank. Once during the trial we had offered to accept the award of the court in one of the cases as the sentence of all, since we could not see the slightest reason for leaving some and taking others. At that time, however, we believed that all would be acquitted. Now every hope had vanished.
But even without the addition of fear for ourselves, the parting from our loved friends, whose voices were still ringing in our ears, while they themselves had passed beyond the gates of death into the unknown land of shadows, was enough to rend the stoutest heart. There were tears then from eyes that shrank before no danger.
But I could not shed a tear. A cloud of burning heat rushed to my head that seemed to scorch through every vein. For hours I scarcely knew where I was, or the loss I had sustained. Every glance around the room, which revealed the vacant places of our friends, would bring our sorrow freshly on us again. Thus the afternoon passed away in grief too deep for words. Slowly and silently the moments wore on, and no one ventured to whisper of hope.
Fearing they could suffer snap execution at any moment, the remaining raiders made their own hope.
Weeks later, a jail breakout freed eight; all eight covered the hundreds of miles to Union lines safely.
The last six, Pettinger included, were captured in the attempt and remained as war prisoners until the following March, when they were swapped back to the Union in a prisoner exchange.
Strange to say, the United States at the outset of the Civil War did not have a standing military decoration. One of the fruits of this fratricidal conflict was the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which remains to this day the highest honor bestowed within the U.S. armed forces. Abraham Lincoln signed the enabling legislation in July of 1862; they were minted beginning at the end of that year and formally became available as decorations on March 3, 1864.
Our last six survivors — the six exchanged for Confederate POWs — presented themselves to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on March 25, 1863. In the course of the visit, Stanton presented them with the first six Medals of Honor ever awarded; ultimately, 19 of Andrews’s Raiders received the award — whether living or dead. (Andrews himself was not eligible for it, as a civilian.)
We have included here several clips of the 1956 Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase. This escapade was also the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy, The General, which can be enjoyed in full online:
For a look at the real General in action in 1962 for the Great Chase’s centennial, take a gander at this video. The Texas is on public display at Atlanta’s Southern Museum‘s exhibit on the Great Locomotive Chase.