Posts filed under 'History'

1629: Louis Bertran, martyr in Japan

Add comment July 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1629, Spanish Dominican Louis Bertran was burned at Omura, Japan for evangelizing, along with two Japanese-born converts known as Mancius of the Holy Cross and Peter of the Holy Mother of God.

Bearing the Gospel to the far-flung corners of the globe was sort of the family business: Bertran’s more famous relative and namesake, Louis Bertran(d), ministered to the New World so tirelessly that he’s been unofficially known as the Apostle of South America.

For two generations by this point, Christianity had struggled under intensifying official persecution — the shogunate deeply suspicious of the infiltration of western clerics who so often it seemed from Japan’s neighbors to bring along with them some patron king’s overweening navy.

Just a few years on from these martyrdoms, Japan closed itself to outside interference altogether. (More or less.)

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1941: Ben Zion bar Shlomo Halberstam, the second Bobever Rebbe

1 comment July 28th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.

Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.

During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.

He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.

As Yad Vashem records,

Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.

They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**

Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.


Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.

* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed hands repeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.

** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1815: Eliza Fenning, for the dumplings

2 comments July 26th, 2015 Headsman

Two hundred years ago today, an Irish serving-girl named Eliza Fenning hanged for poisoning her master’s family. The reliability of the judgment against her was widely questioned in 1815 and has not improved with age.

Robert Turner’s family, along with one of his apprentice stationers all sat down to a meal of dumplings that Eliza, a cook, had prepared for dinner on March 21 of that same year. Within minutes, all were in agony. As Charlotte Turner, who was the mistress of the house even though only a few months older than Ms. Fenning, told the Old Bailey:

I was taken ill myself in less than three minutes afterwards; the effect was so violent, that I had hardly time to get into the yard before my dinner came up. I felt considerable heat across my stomach and chest, and pain.

Q. Was the vomitting of a common kind?

I never experienced any thing before like it for violence; I was terribly irritated; it was not more than a quarter of an hour my apprentice Roger Gadsell was taken very ill in a similar way to myself.

It appeared from the symptoms — and from the blackened dough of the dumplings — that the meal had been laced with arsenic, that cunningly ubiquitous terror of the 19th century. The inference of family, Crown, and eventually court was that Eliza had availed the opportunity of preparing the food to revenge herself on the Turners because Charlotte Turner had caught her some days before sneaking into the apprentices’ room for a snog.

It’s a sure thing that homo sapiens has murdered for feebler reasons than this, but the insufficiency of the provocation, the vociferous denials of the condemned, and the puzzling fact that she too ate the noxious dumplings — all these things militated against confidence in the verdict which was hotly disputed in the public at large. Methods of establishing the presence and quantity of arsenic in a sample were extremely primitive in general, and painfully specious as applied by the surgeon who came to that verdict in the Fenning case.

The court inconclusively pursued the various ingredients in the dish: the same flour had been used for a meat pie that had brought up nobody’s dinner, so that was out; Eliza suggested the milk might be to blame, or a new yeast the house obtained on the eve of the dinner party. There is a wide-ranging effort in the transcript to establish the young woman’s access to an arsenic packet that Robert Turner kept in a desk drawer to poison mice, but this seems little relevant; it was an unlocked desk drawer in a busy household, plus arsenic was widely available in town. Everyone had effective access to arsenic, should she or he have a mind to find it.

As friend of the site (and occasional guest blogger) Richard Clark puts it in his overview, “it is difficult to be sure whether Eliza was guilty or not” even all these years later. But it’s a certainty that what was developed against her in 1815 would fall leagues short of any present-day standard for a confident conviction. Was she really unbalanced enough to try to murder the entire household over a tongue-lashing, yet steely enough to eat the poisoned dish herself to dispel suspicion, yet incautious enough not to have readied any other alibi for the moment when attention would turn to the cook? What possible basis could she have had for believing that she could salt in enough of the toxin to kill everyone else but eat a safely sub-lethal dose herself?

And maybe, as with Cameron Willingham, we might best begin with the premise: was there actually a dose of arsenic, laid in by a sinister hand — or might some contaminant carelessly proximate to the food supply of an unruly metropolis have been the true and undetected culprit?*

The case dissolves under even mild scrutiny into a tissue of social and medical quackery: the uppity servant, the sexually precocious Irishwoman, the assassin infiltrating the dumplings. (See Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime for a scathing defense of Fenning.)

Whatever it was that the family puked up, everyone did so speedily enough to remain among the living. Attempted murder, however, was still a capital crime in England, and would remain so until 1861.

Though her case would attract widespread sympathy and public controvrsy, Eliza Fenning’s defense before the bar was all but nonexistent: four good-character witnesses, plus this statement:

My lord, I am truly innocent of all the charge, as God is my witness; I am innocent, indeed I am; I liked my place, I was very comfortable; as to my master saying I did not assist him, I was too ill. I had no concern with the drawer at all; when I wanted a piece of paper I always asked for it.

That’s the whole of it — complete and unabridged. It is a pathetic thought to consider this helpless plea in light of the idea that the food might have been poisoned accidentally; tunnel vision had already settled on a semi-coherent story of the embittered serving-girl’s revenge,** and without the art to draw out some different interpretation of the few facts available, Eliza found her place fixed by the self-validating suspicions cast upon her.

She held to her innocence all the way to the end; it was put about that a Newgate screw had overheard her father bid her do so no matter what lest he lose all honor after she died. One last character assassination for the road.

Supporters — and she has had many, down to the present day — flocked to Eliza’s Irish wake in the days after her hanging (the body “being placed in the kitchen of the house, and dressed out in ribbons, flowers, &c.”†) and then thronged a funerary procession from Red Lion Square to the tombs of St. George Bloomsbury.

* In 1900, to the consternation of brewers, around 6,000 pub-fanciers in northern England fell ill from beer that turned out to be contaminated with arsenic present in an ingredient (sulphuric acid) that made a different ingredient (glucose) that went into the beer.

** As Fenning was condemned just a few weeks before Waterloo, the paranoia that England’s burghers nurtured over the prospect of incipient Jacobinism must be presumed a relevant part of the scenario … doubly so, considering the young lady’s nationality.

The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Aug. 4, 1815. Reports that the family had the effrontery to accept 40 quid worth of gifts from well-wishers were also lamely represented by Fenning’s persecutors as black marks on the family name.

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1729: James Cluff, on appeal

Add comment July 25th, 2015 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

This unhappy young man was born in Clare-market, and lived as a waiter at several public-houses, in all of which he maintained an extraordinary character for diligence, obligingness, and integrity.

Mr. Payne, master of the Green Lattice, in Holborn, hired Cluff [or Clough -ed.] as a servant, and during his residence there, he fell in love with Mary Green, his fellow-servant; but she being courted by another man, constantly rejected his addresses, which frequently agitated his mind in the most violent degree.

Green’s other lover coming to see her, sat in the same box with her, and was received by her in an affectionate manner; but this did not seem to be much regarded by Cluff, who was then engaged in attending the customers: but when the lover was gone, Mr. Payne, perceiving that something had discomposed Cluff’s mind, asked him the reason of it; but could not prevail on him to tell the cause.

While Mr. Payne and his wife were at dinner in the parlour, and the girl was eating her dinner in one of the boxes, Mrs. Payne heard a noise, as if two persons were struggling, and going into the tap-room, Cluff said, “Come hither, madam.” On this she advanced, and saw the prisoner holding the deceased by the shoulders, who was sitting on the floor, and speechless, while the blood streamed from her in large quantities.

Mrs. Payne called out, “What have you been doing, James?” He said, “Nothing.” He was asked if he had seen her hurt herself? He said, No; but that he had seen her bring a knife from the cellar where she had been to draw some beer for her dinner. Mr. Payne now entered the tap-room, and then went into then cellar to discover if there was any blood there; but finding none, he accused Cluff on suspicion of having committed the murder; and instantly sent for a surgeon. When the surgeon arrived, he found that a knife had been stabbed into the upper part of the thigh, and entered the body of the girl, in such a manner that she could not survive the stroke more than a minute. [i.e., it gashed her femoral artery -ed.]

A bloody knife was found in the room, and Cluff was committed to Newgate for the murder. On his trial, the surgeon deposed that the knife fitted the wound that had been made, and that he believed the woman had not killed herself: but the jury acquitted the prisoner, from what they deemed insufficiency of evidence.

A discharge of the accused party would now have followed of course; but William Green, the brother and heir of the deceased, immediately lodged an appeal in consequence of which Cluff was brought to trial at the next sessions but one, when his case was argued with the utmost ingenuity by the counsel for and against him, but this second jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to die.

Holy double jeopardy! Though rarely used, it was indeed formerly an option for a victim or a victim’s heir to lodge a private appeal against the purported malefactor, even one who had already been acquitted — indeed, even against one who had been convicted and then pardoned.

The distinction between a “public” and a “private” prosecution was usually more theoretical than real, since — at least until Sir John Fielding began organizing professional police in the late 18th century — even normal Crown trials often depended mostly on the exertions of the victim or friends to bring a man to book with sufficient evidence to punish him.* But in a close case, like Cluff’s, the rarely-used private appeal option could occasionally offer what amounted to a second bite at the apple.** (See Whores and Highwaymen: Crime and Justice in the Eighteenth-century Metropolis)

Perhaps tracing to the ancient weregild system of atoning crimes via direct redress by offenders to their victims, private prosecutions were completely immune from interference by a sovereign pardon. (However, they could be dropped any time the prosecuting party wished — which also made them leverage for extracting cash settlements.)

Back to the Newgate Calendar:

“I earnestly press’d upon him to glorify God by a plain Confession of his Crime, and urg’d to him the most material Circumstances, in Consideration whereof scarce any Body doubts but he committed the Fact. He could not pretend that his Master, or Mistress, who gave him the Character of a good Servant, had any Prejudice, or Ill-will to him, upon which Account they might be easy, whether he lived or died. He neither reflected on them, nor none of the Witnesses, as if they had any View in Prosecuting him, but that Justice might be executed. I urg’d him with the Surgeon’s Opinion, that it was improbable, if not impossible, for the Maid to give herself such a Wound; that she had no Knife in the Cellar; that in the first Trial, three Persons had sworn that he was Rude and Barbarous to the Deceased upon many Occasions, and upon that Account she made grievous Complaints to her Mother, and others … he continued Peremptory in his Denial. At first, indeed, he seem’d to be in Confusion, at the many pressing Instances which were made to extort a Confession from him; but recollecting himself, he denied that he gave the mortal Wound, and said, that he knew nothing at all how she came by her Death … Many of his Friends and Acquaintances came daily to visit him, while he was under Sentence, and I wish they did not divert him too much from his Duty, and that some of them did not under-hand, buoy him up with false Hopes. He hop’d to be sav’d only by the Mercy of God, through the Merits of Jesus Christ, and that he forgave all the World any Injuries done him, as he expected Forgiveness from Almighty God.”

-James Guthrie, the Ordinary of Newgate

After conviction, his behaviour was the most devout and resigned that could be imagined; he exercised himself in every act of devotion, but solemnly declared his perfect innocence with respect to the murder. He was visited by his friends, who earnestly entreated him to make a sincere confession; especially as in his case it was not in the power of the king himself to grant him a pardon. In answer hereto, he freely confessed all his other crimes; but, saying he would not rush into eternity with a lie in his month, again steadily denied the perpetration of the crime of which he had been convicted. The clergyman who attended him urged him to the confession of his guilt, and even refused to administer the sacrament to him on the morning of his execution, on any other terms than those of acknowledging his crime, but nothing could shake his resolution; he still steadily persisted in his innocence.

On his way to the place of execution, he desired to stop at the door of his late master, which being granted, he called for a pint of wine, and having drank a glass of it, he addressed Mr. Payne in the following terms:

“Sir, you are not insensible that I am going to suffer an ignominious death, for a crime of which I declare I am not guilty, as I am to appear before my great Judge in a few moments to answer for all my past sins. I hope you and my good mistress will pray for my poor soul. God bless you, and all your family.”

At the place of execution he behaved in the most composed, devout, and resigned manner; and seemed to possess in the consciousness of innocence. There was a great concourse of spectators to witness his fatal end; to whom he spoke in the following manner: “Good people, I am going to die for a fact I never committed, I wish all mankind well; and as I have prayed for my prosecutors, I hope my sins will be forgiven through the merits of my ever blessed redeemer. I beg you to pray for my departing soul; and as to the fact now die for, I wish I was as free from, all other sins.”

He was hanged at Tyburn on the, 25th of July, 1729, exhibiting no signs of fear to his last moment.

The case of this man is very extraordinary. The evidence against him was at best but circumstantial; and this not supported with such strong corroborative proofs as have occasioned conviction in many other instances. No person was witness to his commission of the murder; nor was there any absolute proof that he did commit it; and from the steady perseverance with which he denied it, under the most awful circumstances, and at the very concluding scene of his life, charity would. tempt one to believe that he was innocent. Ought not this case to afford a lesson of caution to juries how they convict on circumstantial evidence? Is it not better that the guilty should escape, than the innocent be punished? All the decrees of mortals are liable to error; but the time will come when all mists shall be cleared from our sight; and we shall witness to the wisdom of those laws of Providence, which are now inscrutable to mortal eyes. Then shall we see that what appeared inexplicable to us was divinely right; and learn to admire that wisdom which, at present, so much exceeds our finite comprehension. In the mean time, we ought to adore that goodness we cannot comprehend, and rest satisfied with those dispensations, which are eternally and immutably just.

After Cluff’s hanging, his friends published a paper delivered them by the dead man “wherein [Cluff] makes a solemn Declaration that he was innocent of the Murder, and that several material Circumstances given in Evidence against him (which he particularly mentions) were untrue.” (London Journal, Aug. 2, 1729)

* Most notoriously, Jonathan Wild profiteered wildly from this system of privatized law enforcement by extracting a cut both from thieves whom he could threaten to shop for a reward, and from victims whose effects he could recover for a percentage.

** Though such proceedings would normally be handled, as Cluff’s was, by a jury trial, it was for private prosecutions that trial by combat still remained a possibility; one wonders if the accused servant considered taking his chances in the lists. This archaic legal artifact would not be abolished for ninety more years yet — after an 1818 case, Ashford v. Thornton, in which the burly accused in a private appeal successfully sued for the right to fight his wispy accuser in arms rather than in court. The magistrate gave an embarrassed ruling in the brawler’s favor (“however obnoxious I am myself to the trial by battle, it is the mode of trial which we, in our judicial character, are bound to award. We are delivering the law as it is, and not as we wish it to be”), leading the appellant to wisely back out of the case … and leading Parliament to ban private appeals and trial by combat in 1819.

When such an abolition was mooted as a means of soothing the American colonies in the early 1770s, however, conservative Lords decried the innovation as tending to “a system of ministerial despotism” that would remove a failsafe for crime victims — although Edmund Burke did allow that the ugly remnant of judicial combat “was superstitious and barbarous to the last degree.”

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1722: Marie-Jeanne Roger, “la Grande-Jeanneton”

Add comment July 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1722, Cartouche’s redoubtable lover “Big Jenny” was executed on Paris’s Place de Greve.

As befits a thief intrepid enough to grace the execution playing cards, the great French outlaw Cartouche boasted a veritable harem of mistresses whose offices were no less valuable for their contributions to Cartouche’s criminal enterprises: “‘La Catin,’ ‘La Bel-Air,’ ‘La Galette,’ ‘La Petite Poulailliere,’ ‘La Mion,’ ‘La Belle-Laitiere,’ ‘Margot-Monsieur,’ ‘La Religieuse,’ ‘La Bonne,’ ‘La Blanche,’ “Tape-dru,’ &c. &c. But far beyond them all stands out, in rich relief, the name of that most celebrated, most accomplished, most devoted of all the (titular) wives of Cartouche — Big Jenny!” (Source)

Under the guise of an innocent fruit-pedlar, Marie-Jeanne Roger, alias La Grande-Jeanneton “flitt[ed] about from place to place, spying, plotting, drinking, fighting, robbing, and being robbed — the terror and admiration (according to the spectator’s point of view) of every one that approached her.” And she and the robber prince had by accounts that might admittedly be colored by sentimental projection a passionate romance. (Parlement’s published condemnation traduces her as a “debauched woman, concubine” of a number of disreputable characters. Our doomed principal tartly replied that Paris would halve her vices if only greedy innkeepers were not so eager to play procurer.)

La Grande-Jeanneton‘s well-known dalliance with Cartouche made her a prime target after authorities started rolling up that brigand’s gang, and they were mean enough to deny her request to go to the scaffold with her man.

Her sex did not spare her the horrible torture of the Brodequin; posterity has not seen fit to blame her overmuch for succumbing to the leg-crusher to the extent of yielding 52 names, especially since she at least salvaged the opportunity to embarrass many distinguished merchants.

Depuis un an logeait, vers le Palais-Royal,
Une fille de bien qui se gouvernait mal.
Cartouche fréquentait cette tendre poulette;
Salope, s’il en fut, d’ailleurs assez bien faite.
Oeil fripon, petit nez retroussé, teint fleuri,
Friande d’un amant, bien plus que d’un mari,
Fourbe au dernier degré, mutine jusqu’à battre,
Son coeur fut captivé par ce jeune tendron,
Que chacun appelait ta Grande Jeanneton.

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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

Add comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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1799: Elizabeth Lavender, teenage Fairlight infanticide

Add comment July 22nd, 2015 Headsman

London Chronicle, Feb. 2-5, 1799

On Sunday se’nnight the body of a new-born male infant, with its throat cut, was discovered, concealed in a small tub, among some cordwood, in a cellar at Fairlight in the county of Sussex. The fact appearing to have been recently committed, and suspicion falling on a young woman, resident in an adjoining apartment, named Lavender, she was taken into custody and a surgeon sent for, who declared she had been very lately in travail; and the Coroner’s Jury having on view of the body, returned a verdict of wilful murder against the said Lavender, she was committed to Horsham gaol. The wretched girl hath scarcely attained her eighteenth year.

London Oracle and Daily Advertiser, July 19, 1799

LEWES. — At our Assizes, which commence here on Friday morning next, before Lord Chief Justice Buller,* we have the satisfaction to say, there are but seven prisoners for trial, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, aged 19 years, charged with the wilful murder of her male bastard child at Fairlight.

James Medhurst, alias Miles, aged 24 years, for feloniously stealing one barrow hog, the property of Thomas Davis.

Daniel Noyell, aged 20 years; John Gardiner, 21 years; and John Twiney, 22 years, for divers felonies in the town of Brighton.

William Jackson, aged 23 years, for feloniously entering the dwelling-house of Henry Karn, of Tillington, in June last, and stealing therein to the amount of twelve shillings in money, a silver watch, some wearing apparel, and other articles, the property of the said Henry Karns.

William Hodson, otherwise Powell, aged 28 years, charged with having stolen on Westbourn Common, a black gelding, the property of William Churcher; also with having stolen and rode away from a lane, in the parish of New Fishbourn, a grey poney gelding, the property of John Hardham.

Should the business at nisi prius prove as light as that on the Crown side, we shall have a very short Assize.

London Sun, July 25, 1799

LEWES, July 22

At the Assizes for this County, which ended here on Saturday morning last, seven prisoners were tried, five of whom were capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz.

Elizabeth Lavender, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at Fairlight. — John Gardiner and John Twiney, for felonies in the town of Brighton. — William Jackson, for a felony in the dwelling house of Henry Karn, at Tillington. — And William Hodson, otherwise Powell, for horse-stealing.

The four men were reprieved before the Judges left the town; but the unhappy woman was left for execution, and is this day to suffer at Horsham, after which her body is to be dissected and anatomized.

True Briton, Aug. 2, 1799

LEWES, July 29

Last Monday Elizabeth Lavender was executed at Horsham, pursuant to her sentence at our late Assizes, for the murder of her male bastard child. Her behaviour at the gallows was such as became one in her unhappy situation. She trembled and wept much, but nevertheless seemed to listen to the Clergyman who attended her, and having expressed a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate, she was turned off about half past twelve, and expired without any apparent agony.

* Buller is most (in)famous now for allegedly issuing the judicial standard permitting a man to beat his wife with a rod, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. It’s quite dubious whether he ever did so rule, and indeed whether any such rule has ever existed; nevertheless, Buller was lampooned in his own day as “Judge Thumb”.

More historically verifiable is his role on the judicial panel upholding the right of the slaveship Zong to throw all its cargo into the sea.

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1797: David McLane, an American traitor in Quebec

Add comment July 21st, 2015 Headsman

On only one occasion has the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering been executed on the soil of the (eventual) United States.

But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.

David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)

The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.

Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*

The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.

I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:

Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!

And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.

This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.

The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.

“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.

The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.

I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**

Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.

It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.

The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.

* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.

** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)

The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.

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1934: Not Walter Lett, To Kill a Mockingbird inspiration

3 comments July 20th, 2015 Headsman

July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.

Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.

“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”

Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.

We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.

In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.

Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.

Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”

* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.

** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.

† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.

See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”

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