Posts filed under 'History'

1778: Patrick McMullen, repeat deserter

Add comment September 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Patrick McMullen was hanged on the Philadelphia commons for deserting, repeatedly, the Continental Army.

This poor fellow had started off (promisingly enough for the colonies) by deserting the British.

Such documentation as remains easily accessible isn’t very detailed about his pre-war background; the British had recently passed a Recruiting Act authorizing press gangs to shanghai Scotsmen into the royal army, but that measure was only 99 days old at this time. There were also many Scots-Irish who had already immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony or thereabouts.

This Irishman, however, enlisted pre-1775 in the British 38th Regiment of Foot, deserted, presumably served in a Continental Army unit at some point thereafter, and then by 1778 was back in British colors for the Battle of Monmouth, after which he deserted once again. Maybe he even changed teams four times, instead of twice.

Don Hagist is the author of the forthcoming book British Soldiers, American War.

This sort of “treachery” was not at all unusual.

“A good number of men switched sides, some several times, during the war,” said Don Hagist of the fascinating British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. “For many of them it did not impugn their reputations as soldiers; for example, many British prisoners of war escaped from captivity, joined in the American army as a means to get close to the front lines, then deserted again to rejoin the British army.

“At least, that is the story they’d give when brought to trial. Even when acquitted, sometimes these same men deserted yet again. When McMullen returned to the British army, he may have given the popular story that he was kidnapped by Bostonians and carried away from the garrison. This happened to a number of British soldiers in 1774 and early 1775; some turned up years later and gave their stories in court.”

McMullen had the bad luck to have to give this story to a court in Philaelphia at the time of that patriotic city’s maximum hostility following the British occupation.

Philadelphia’s Revolutionary military governor at this time was Benedict Arnold — still two years from his infamous betrayal, but even now finding himself stressed by the revolutionary extremism of his charges. Never a fire-eater himself, Arnold personally wrote to the Continental Congress with his own pitch for showing McMullen a bit of brotherly love, vouchsafing the view that our deserter’s culpability was “is in his [Arnold’s] opinion insufficient” to warrant execution.

A Congressional committee respectfully disagreed, judging McMullen “a person of a most atrocious character” and directed that the hanging proceed.

Short review of these volumes about Revolutionary War desertion.

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1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist

Add comment September 3rd, 2012 Headsman

From the Oct. 12, 1927 Republican Herald recapping the Land of Lincoln’s hanging history on the occasion of its trendy switch to the electric chair.

Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first execution in the state being held at Belleville on September 3, 1821, when Timothy Bennett paid the penalty for murder resulting in a duel in which Timothy [sic — the rest of the article refers to the victim as “Alphonso”] C. Stewart was killed.

According to the account appearing in an old history of St. Clair county, now in the state historical library, Timothy Bennett and Alphonso C. Stewart became involved in an argument while under the influence of liquor, on February 8, 1819, at Belleville. Friends interfered and sought to effect a reconciliation, but their efforts were unavail[ing]. Finally it was agreed to arrange a sham duel in the belief that the ridiculous issue would bring the two participants to their senses.

“The duel was arranged,” the account reads. “Jacob Short and Nathan Fike acted as seconds. When the word was given and the rifles discharged, it was proven the ‘sham’ duel was fought with powder and lead-at any rate Alphonso C. Stewart fell to the ground mortally wounded.

Special Session in Court

“Timothy Bennett was arrested and so were the seconds, Short and Fike. A special term of the circuit court was held March 8, 1919 [sic], under a special law of the legislature to hold said term. The officers of the court, John Reynolds, judge; John Hay, clerk, and W.A. Beard, sheriff, were all appointed by Governor Shadrack Bond.

“The grand jury found true bills of indictments for murder against Bennett and the two seconds after hearing the testimony of Reuben Anderson, James Parks, James Kincade, James Reed, Daniel Million, Ben Million, Peter Sprinkle and Michael Tannahill.

“When the case was called for trial the sheriff reported that Bennett had broken jail and was at large. Short and Fike had their trial in June 1819, and were acquited [sic].

“Bennett was captured and jailed about July 1, 1821. A special term of court was held July 26, 1821. The grand jury found a new indictment against him for the same offense

Trial Starts Immediately

“Bennett was put on trial July 27, 1821, before Judge Reynolds and a jury. The jury rendered a verdict July 28, and found the presoner [sic] guilty. He had entered a plea of not guilty.

“The court then proceeded to pass sentence upon him in the following words:

“And it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pass sentence upon him, he said he had nothing more than he had before said. Therefore it was considered by the court that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, and that the sheriff of the county do cause execution of this judgment to be done and performed on him, the said Timothy Bennett, on Monday, the third of September, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and four in the afternoon at or near the town of Belleville.”

“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed. The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor remained firm and against all entreaty.

“On the day appointed for his execution, Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab school. The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.

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1944: Six Milice collaborators in France

Add comment September 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, just days after the Liberation of Paris secured the restoration of the French Republic, six collaborators were publicly shot in the foothills of the French Alps. They were the condemned of the first court-martial to sit in liberated France.

A London Times correspondent estimated that 4,000 or more of their countrymen braved cruel wind and rain to cheer the traitors’ deaths meted to these young members of the Vichy government’s hated milice.

They were among ten members of that militia captured at a training grounds in Grenoble, and the shooting of these six was preceded by a loudspeaker announcement decrying the tribunal which tried them for having the softness merely to imprison the other four.

“The Liberation Committee considers that the sentences which failed to inflict the death penalty on all the militiamen not to be in conformity with the wishes of the French people and accordingly promises, in conformity with those wishes, to see that the composition of the court-martial is revised in order to avoid a repetition of such weakness.” The people answered with a cheer.

-London Times, Sep. 4 1944

The executions, carried out on a grounds the Gestapo had once used to executed Resistance members, were also photographed, and the striking images published in the Oct. 2 issue of Life magazine. Once available online from Life at this now-dead link, the gallery is reproduced at this Chinese page; Warning: Disturbing Content.

Photographer John Osborne, later a noted editor and habitue of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, would not have been a candidate for the Resistance’s court.

“I am susceptible as most,” he wrote in Life‘s original dispatch. “When I first saw the 10 men and boys in the courtroom dock at this trial, I wanted to cry. They looked so young, wretched, unshaven … It was very easy to sentimentalize over these men, all of whom were underlings. It was easy to agree with the [collaborators’] chief defender, Pierre Guy, that France would be harming only herself if she killed them now.”

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1987: Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies, after the Langa massacre

Add comment September 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies — “political prisoners” in the estimation of their supporters — hanged along with five common criminals at Pretoria for the murder of Ben Kinikini and five others.*

The killing of Kinikini occurred in an environment of bitterly escalating hostilities in the eastern cape city of Uitenhage and especially the KwaNobuhle township. Anti-apartheid school boycotts dating back to September 1984 (part of a spreading revolt in the townships at that time) had metastasized into violent confrontations when protesters were denied meeting space by the black KwaNobuhle councillors.

Kinikini was such a councillor, and he and the others had been under popular pressure to resign, and even had their homes stoned, since the last weeks of 1984.

Protesters stoned vehicles. Riot squads roamed the streets. Police shootings became everyday events, and more enraged crowds gathered at the resulting funerals of their victims.**

On March 21, 1985,† police opened fire on one such funeral procession, slaying some 20 people in a single go — the Langa Massacre.


Coffins of the Langa Massacre’s victims. (cc) image from United Nations Photo Library. Also see this, this, this and this.

And then it really hit the fan.

Riots erupted following the Langa massacre, and it was on March 23 that Kinikini was dragged from his house and murdered: black township councillors were liable to be seen as apartheid collaborators. Defense witnesses for Jantjies and Mielies were quite a bit more specific, slating Kinikini with direct links to murderous vigilantes who liked to beat up and rape protesters in the creepy privacy of Kinikini’s apt personal business, a mortuary.

And as one memoir of the period puts it, “the government knew black councillors would not participate in a democratic charade unless their lives and property were protected and avenged. Some two and a half thousand black councillors, policemen and informers, real and rumoured, had been killed in the unrest that had begun in 1984.”

For South African president and white-rule stalwart P.W. Botha, those were far more pressing constituencies than mercy appeals from usual suspects like black activists and the West German government. These were also the first two township-rising convicts to come up for execution, out of some 33 then on death row, so their treatment figured to set the precedent for even higher-profile cases on the horizon like the Sharpeville Six. (In the event, apartheid collapsed before the Six could actually be hanged.)

The message was hardly lost on its internal audience.

“We have come to terms with the fact that the enemy has declared war,” Winnie Mandela told a Johanessburg memorial service for Jantjies and Mielies hanged. “We accept the challenge. The blood of the comrades has not flowed in vain.”

* Ben Kinikini, his four sons and nephews, and one other person were stabbed and burned to death. Some reports term at least Ben Kinikini’s killing a “necklacing” — the brutal method of popular execution that arose in the 1980s in which the “jewelry” was a rubber tire filled with flaming petrol. It sounds from the widow’s secondhand description as if this could indeed characterize it, though the fact that the Truth and Reconcilation Commission called a July 1985 killing the country’s first necklacing might indicate otherwise. News stories suggest that photographs and video exist of, if not the murder, at least the aftermath: perhaps these are dispositive on the point.

** See Thole Majodina, “A Short Background to the Shooting Incident in Langa Township, Uitenhage,” Human Rights Quarterly, August 1986.

† March 21 also happened to be the very anniversary date of one of apartheid South Africa’s most infamous police atrocities, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Thanks to Sharpeville, this first day of spring is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as the date on which South Africa marks Human Rights Day.

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1887: Henri Pranzini, repentant?

3 comments August 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date 125 years ago, a notorious French triple murderer was guillotined outside La Roquette Prison.

This condemned murderer, so infamous that anarchist bomber Ravachol planned to invoke his name as an emblem of crime in a suppressed courtroom speech, slaughtered a prostitute, her maid, and the maid’s child so that he could plunder the apartment’s jewelry.

Your basic sensational common butchery, given added legs by comparison to the next year’s apparition across the channel of the Whitechapel murderer.*

That’s just one of several more famous (or infamous) contemporaries for whom Pranzini was a sort of subplot character.

The artist Paul Gauguin — though he couldn’t quite remember the name right — suspected that this particular killer plotted his crime at the cafe that both he and Vincent Van Gogh frequented. (Van Gogh painted the proprietress, who was also possibly his lover.)

According to Van Gogh, the whole Pansini [Pranzini] affair, as well as many others, was hatched in this place … From this Pansini case sprang another case, also, according to Van Gogh, hatched in this famous cafe, the Prado case

We’ve noticed in these pages Gauguin’s disturbing severed-head jug, and its seeming inspiration from that other guillotinee, Prado.

While Gauguin’s meditations on the guillotine veered to the grotesque, a Norman teenager fresh off an apparition of Jesus Christ found spiritual sublimity in this villain. The woman eventually known as St. Therese of Lisieux later recollected

I heard talk of a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent…. I felt in the depths of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus. But I was begging Him for a “sign” of repentance only for my own simple consolation.

My prayer was answered to the letter! In spite of Papa’s prohibition that we read no papers, I didn’t think I was disobeying when reading passages pertaining to Pranzini. The day after the execution I found the newspaper “La Croix.” I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! my tears betrayed my emotion and I was obliged to hide. Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.

I had obtained the sign I requested.

Nameless citizens on the square when the blade fell settled for less exalted signs, like the ancient superstition of dipping into the spattered blood. (“Such scenes would disgust the black savages of Dahomey and the Gold Coast,” the London Times sniffed (September 1, 1887), and in vain urged the French government to take up legislation for private executions.)

* Pranzini found himself in Madame Tussaud’s for a spell.

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1481: Michal Olelkowicz and Iwan Holszanski, Lithuanian princes

Add comment August 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.

That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.

Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania agonistes

Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.

And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.

That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.

The Great Stand on the River Ugra

Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.

The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.

The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.

Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.

Chop

This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)

And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.

Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.

Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.

However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.

Sources:

This webcache page.

The Polish-Lithuanian State 1386-1795, by Daniel Stone.

Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky.

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1890: Otto Leuth

1 comment August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

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1987: Dale Selby Pierre, Hi-Fi Murderer

2 comments August 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Utah executed Dale Selby Pierre for one of the most notorious crimes in that state’s history — the Hi-Fi Murders.

Pierre, along with two fellow airmen from the Hill Air Force Base, William Andrews and Keith Roberts, began an armed robbery of a hi-fi shop in nearby Ogden near closing time on the evening of April 22, 1974.

The night that unfolded would be a visit to an antechamber of hell not only for the two young clerks on duty at the time, but three other people who wandered into the store while the crooks were still in it — each of whom was added to the growing pen of hostages Pierre et al kept in the basement.

After plundering the shop of $25,000 worth of electronics, Pierre and Andrews went to get rid of their prisoners by making them drink liquid Drano.

This method of homicide, theoretically an elegantly quiet one which would facilitate a clean getaway, had been cribbed from a murder scene in the 1973 Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force.

The struggles of Cortney Naisbitt, one of the surviving victims, forms the subject of Victim: The Other Side of Murder — a classic of the true-crime genre and of the victim’s rights movement.

But human flesh is hardier than celluloid.

Unlike the poor prostitute in Magnum Force, Pierre and Andrews’s victims groaned and gurgled, their blistering mouths suppurating so much fluid that duct tape to quiet them down wouldn’t stick. And the Drano didn’t kill them, or at least it was sure taking its time.

“I remember the noise they were making, the sounds of pain they were making,” Pierre told his clemency hearing. “It was something greater than sad.”

Since they hadn’t got rid of their victims quite so cleanly, Pierre simply set about shooting them — and in the case of Michelle Ansley, a 19-year-old in her first (and last) week on the job at the Hi-Fi shop, raping her first. These execution-style murders had only mixed results, and one of the hostages — 43-year-old Orren Walker — being noticeably not dead, had a ball-point pen kicked into his ear in an attempt to finish him off.

Somehow, Walker still survived, as did 16-year-old Cortney Naisbitt, who suffered severe brain damage. (Both have since died.) Stanley Walker, Carol Naisbitt, and Ansley were not so “lucky.” But neither were the perps: since Andrews had openly talked at the Air Force base about boosting that very hi-fi shop and even killing anyone who “gets in the way,” suspicious fellow airmen soon turned them in.

The 21st century’s more polished and calculating strategic communications consultant probably would have advised keeping well clear of such an incendiary crime, but death penalty opponents actually pushed clemency hard in the Hi-Fi case.* For the NAACP, the sentences underscored racial disparity in the death penalty.

Rubbish, one might say, given the killers’ epically villainous conduct. But one member of the all-white jury was apparently passed a note by parties unknown reading “Hang the niggers.” And the NAACP noted that Utah gave death sentences to these guys, but not to a white supremacist who murdered two black men for jogging with white women.

None of this cut any ice with Utah. Years later, the killers themselves had a hard time fitting that monstrous night into any kind of comprehensible rationale. Pierre:

The crime took a course of its own. It wasn’t planned that way. People kept coming in and I just panicked. The only way to prevent what happened was to have been moved away from the Air Force entirely … Of course the alcohol and the pills I was consuming didn’t help — valiums, reds, black beauties and yellow jackets … I tell myself, “You have to accept responsibility for it — you did it, you were there. You can’t rationalize it.”


Dale Pierre pleads his case to the Utah clemency board.

Dale Pierre was the very first person put to death in Utah after its famously groundbreaking execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977. But in fact, the Hi-Fi killers had preceded the eager volunteer Gilmore on Utah’s death row, and Gilmore as he walked his last mile reportedly wisecracked to Pierre and Andrews, “I’ll be seeing you directly.”

Pierre’s accomplice William Andrews was also finally executed in 1992, after a then-unimaginable (and anything but “direct”) 18 years on death row — nearly half his life. Their fellow accomplice Keith Roberts didn’t personally take part in the cellar hecatomb and therefore avoided the death sentence: he was paroled in 1987.

* The clemency push was much stronger for William Andrews than for Dale Pierre, since Andrews was also making the argument that he hadn’t directly killed anyone and hadn’t intended to. As a matter of fact, the manipulative Andrews was and is widely doubted on that point — but any such claim was wholly unavailable to the acknowledged triggerman Pierre.

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1628: Milady de Winter, Three Musketeers villainess

1 comment August 27th, 2012 Headsman

Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.

Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).

This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)

This novel — which has long been in the public domain (Text at Gutenberg.org or ClassicReader.com | Free audio book at Librivox.org) — features Milady continually bedeviling the protagonist d’Artagnan. He loves her; she keeps trying to kill him. Pretty typical for these grim annals. (She also used to be Athos’s wife, years ago, until he tried to murder her. Long story.)

To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who sees his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.

Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.

The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unknown to her, her hours are numbered.

Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:

“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”

D’Artagnan advanced.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”

He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.

“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.

D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”

“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.

“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.

“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.

The baron came forward.

“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”

“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.

“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”

And so forth.

Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.

“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”

Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.

Indeed, in the next volume of the series, Twenty Years After, it’s Milady’s vengeful son Mordaunt who acts as Charles I‘s executioner.

This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.

* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.

** In the novel, it’s Madame de Chevreuse who has arranged this rendezvous of d’Artagnan with his lover — another actual, historical person whom we have met elsewhere in these pages.

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1825: Stephen Videto, Indian giver

2 comments August 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1825, Stephen Videto was hanged in Franklin County, New York, for murder.

This History of Clinton and Franklin Counties misstates the execution date but otherwise sums the matter up nicely. Videto found himself yoked to an engagement he’d come to regard as disagreeable.

Rather than just break the thing off,* he arranged — so the jury found, though Videto always denied it — to kill the poor woman. (Literally poor. Her last husband had left her, abandoning her penniless.)

Videto contrived a whole scenario where the colored man was lurking around his house … the red-colored man, in this case. Scary Indians.

Claiming to be spooked by encounters with mysterious native prowlers, Videto armed himself up; sure enough, one night soon, an Indian shot into his bedroom and started a firefight. The perennially discarded Fanny Mosley was killed in the crossfire.

For the apparent calculation that went into this cover story, Videto was awfully careless about the details. As rudimentary as crime scene forensics were in 1825, it was still self-evident that the glass in the window had been shot outward, not inward; and, that the ball causing Mosley’s fatal wound had likewise originated from within the house, not without. And come to think of it, the “Indian footprints” outside that window looked an awful lot like Videto’s own. And nobody else had ever seen these Indian stalkers Videto was on about — not that night, nor in his buildup of the preceding days.

The evidence might be circumstantial, but those were a whole lot of circumstances. The jury took 15 minutes to convict him, although Videto maintained his innocence to the last — even waving a written declaration of such to the onlookers after the trap fell, while he was strangling to death.

We have a letter from a witness to this hanging, a Vermont silversmith named William Ransom Vilas:**

After a large concourse of people had assembled which was estimated at six or eight thousand, [Videto] was then taken from his place of confinement and conducted by the sherif and guard of seven independent companies to the place of his execution. Then, with 2 assistants, he ascended the gallows, where a discourse was delivered by Elder [Nathaniel] Culver from Luke 13th 23, in which he pointed out to him awful situation and then he protested his innocence of the crime alledged against him and likewise stated that he was no way accessory. Then after giveing a parting hand to each one of his attendants and to a Brother, which was all the relation of his present, his hands were then bound; the rope about his neck was then fastened, and the moment was at hand. The fatal stud was then nock-d out, and now, do not you see him in your imagination hung & strangling. O twas a solemn sight, but the laws must be put in execution.

Although he protested his innocence, it (is) generally believed that he was guilty but protested innocence on account of the conexions. Thus it is that we see man snached from the hand of existence by the Executioner, thus we may justly say “the wicked do not live out half their days.” He (had) a long trial and without doubt an impartial one. But we are frail mortals all hastening to our Mother, ____our joys are like the morning dew before the morning sun. They pass we know not where and we are led to reflection:

Mortals behold the hour glass.
And leave your wordly care
It shows how swift our minutes pass
And bids us all for death prepare.

* Possible motivation for preferring homicide to a breakup: his “beloved” was pregnant.

** As a Vermont Vilas, we suppose that this writer was probably related to politician Levi Baker Vilas and to his (future, at this point) son, eventual U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior William Freeman Vilas.

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