Posts filed under 'History'

1830: Stephen Simmons, the last executed by Michigan

Add comment September 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1830, Stephen Simmons was publicly hanged in Detroit, Michigan: the very last time that state has conducted an execution.*

Michigan was the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Death penalty foes celebrate March 1 as “International Death Penalty Abolition Day” (pdf) after the date Michigan’s law took effect.

Simmons himself was a minor malefactor in the scheme of things but amply detested in the day of his crime.

A tavern-keeper by trade, he had a habit of getting into the whiskey himself, to violent effect. One night at home, a sodden Simmons picked a fight with his wife Livana and killed her with a vicious blow to the abdomen. The main trouble in this noteworthy trial (pdf) was seating a jury not completely biased against him.

An estimated two thousand people turned up to watch him pay for his crime, and for their “comfort and entertainment” the authorities had “wooden grandstands erected on three sides of the scaffolding, uniformed militia to be deployed around the scaffolding as a guard of honor, a military band to serenade the crowd while it waited for the main event, and vendors to patrol the grounds hawking food, whiskey, and rum.”

Sounds like a place about to abolish the death penalty, right?

Executed Today was pleased to speak with David Chardavoyne, law professor at Wayne State University and the University of Detroit-Michigan, about this case and its place in Michigan’s early path to abolition. Chardavoyne is the author of the award-winning book A Hanging In Detroit: Stephen Wayne Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law

Book CoverET: To set the scene, what is Detroit like in 1830?

DC: In 1830 Detroit was the capital of the Michigan Territory, but it had only about 2,000 inhabitants. It was, though, a bustling community because it was the entryway for the tens of thousands of settlers heading into the wilderness west and north of Detroit. Most buildings were on a narrow strip of land between the river and Jefferson Avenue, although the capitol, jail, and Simmons’s execution site were further north, about a half mile from the river.

This was the last execution in Michigan, but to what extent can we really say that it led to the end of the death penalty there? It strikes me that support must have been pretty soft to start with if that’s the case.

To be precise, the last execution under Michigan law — there were 2 executions under federal law a short time later and the Chebatoris execution in the 1930s.

I conclude in my book that there is no real evidence that the Simmons case caused the abolition of capital punishment. Most people living in Michigan in the 1840s, and almost all of the legislators who voted for abolition, arrived in Michigan after 1830 and there was no mention of that case in the extensive debates in the constitutional conventions in 1835-36 or in the legislature in the 1840s.

However, incidents surrounding the Simmons execution show that unease about capital punishment existed in 1830. First, the fact that most killers before and after 1830 were convicted of manslaughter whatever the facts. Second, the alleged mob that tore down the city whipping post right after Simmons’s execution. Third, Governor Cass, in his annual address a couple of months later stated that he was sorry that the law did not allow him to reduce Simmons’s sentence to time in prison.

Why was it that this one hanging, of a guy who had clearly killed his wife even if not intentionally, so powerfully affected people? And how troubled were Michiganders by the case itself, before the specific events of execution day?

Whatever effect the Simmons execution had on the spectators had little to do with Simmons but rather their exposure to a gruesome death. The people seem to have been genuinely outraged by the crime and the fact that the victim was his wife, so that it was very difficult to seat a fair jury. There is little to no evidence of any sympathy for Simmons.

What about the accounts of attendees stunned and shamed by Simmons’ last-minute plea for mercy in the midst of the public-festival environment.

In the book, I explain that my research puts this whole story very much in doubt. It first appeared almost 50 years later in a speech at the state historical convention, but it is not clear that the speaker was even in town that day. It was picked up and repeated by subsequent writers, but the Detroit newspaper at the time made no mention of it, nor did the very few other witness accounts.

When Michigan did abolish the death penalty, how were people talking about the Simmons case? Did it swing any votes?

Again, the Simmons case seems to have been forgotten by then, or at least neither side thought that it would help their arguments.

We’re accustomed now to think of clemency decisions as highly political. How did Lewis Cass’s political aspirations affect his handling of Simmons, if they did at all? And for that matter, did he or anyone else end up suffering any political fallout for the way events ultimately transpired?

As noted above, under territorial law Cass’s only option was to pardon Simmons — he could not just reduce the sentence. It may or may not have been relevant that he left town early on the day of the execution to visit his mother in Ohio and did not attend the execution.

What’s really amazing is that Michigan has kept the death penalty off the books for nearing two centuries. That can’t all be about Stephen Simmons. What is it about Michigan’s culture, politics, or demographics that has kept it so staunchly anti-death penalty?

This is a question that writers have been asking for decades. Remember that abolition was a close-run thing. Religion, political party, and other divisions do not appear to have been a factor in the voting.

My guess is that it had to do with personality. The legislators in 1846 were mostly young men who were adventurous and optimistic enough to leave their friends and families in the east for the frontier. Such people, according to my psychologist friends tend to be against capital punishment. Why capital punishment was never reinstated is a tribute, I think, to the fact that the system works. Every so often a particularly bad killing starts politicians shouting about bringing it back, but it never goes anywhere. Since 1963, of course, the ban has been in our state constitution, and removing it would be very difficult.

* As Prof. Chardavoyne mentions, a few executions have been conducted in Michigan under federal (not state) law since 1830.

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782: 4,500 Saxons by order of Charlemagne

7 comments September 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On an unknown date in the latter half of 782, Charlemagne did some seriously nasty business with a captured army of Saxons.

In the late 8th century, the King of the Franks was fighting a decades-long running campaign against Saxon tribes at the edge of his sprawling European empire.

One part Christianizing the pagans and one (or more) parts territorial aggrandizement, Charlemagne’s exertions on the Rhinish frontier were opposed by Widukind, or Witikind, or Widochind, whose “forest-child” name belies its owner’s legendary ferocity.


Widukind was reclaimed in the Renaissance as a patriotic or national figure. (Source)

In the summer of 782, when Charlemagne perhaps thought he had whatever passed for peace among the querulous Saxons, Widukind raised a revolt and dealt the Franks a stinging defeat that put a couple of imperial legates into the ground and made some martyrs out of clerics he found in the wrong place at the time.

Charlemagne’s forces counterattacked and routed the Saxons at the Battle of Suntel (or Sonnethal) Mountain, and thereupon

questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom be had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion which had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up in view of the fact that he had taken himself off to the Northmen once the deed had been done, no fewer than 4500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and at the place on the river Aller called Verden, at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day. Thus was punishment executed; and the king then retired to winter-quarters at Thionville, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and Easter in the customary fashion.

This merciless slaughter of prisoners is one of the lasting blights on Charlemagne’s impressive reputation. Even so, the reputation had the last word: three years later, Witikind was finally defeated and delivered up, in person, to the Frankish ruler … who accepted the Saxon pagan’s submission and forced him to convert to Christianity.


Charlemagne receives Witikind’s submission at Paderborn in 785.

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1944: Pietro Caruso, fascist chief of police

Add comment September 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Pietro Caruso was shot to death by a firing squad for his reign as the head of police in fascist Rome.

Renowned for his sadism towards the enemies of Mussolini, Caruso was most infamous for his role rounding up Italians* for a Nazi mass-execution just months before — the Ardeatine Massacre.

Subject of the first war crimes trial in Allied-occupied Italy, Caruso almost wasn’t around long enough to make this blog: an angry mob invaded the courtroom where he was tried just days earlier, attempting to lynch him.

Authorities managed to safeguard the war criminal, but the mob sated its bloodlust by grabbing another fascist who had turned state’s evidence and was all set to testify against Caruso until he was hauled out and drowned in the Tiber.

Apparently they didn’t need his evidence anyway.

The war, of course, was not yet over … and in northern Italy’s ongoing fascist enterprise, the blackshirts conducted retaliatory executions to retaliate for executing Caruso for retaliatory executions.

* Caruso’s defense: the Nazis had demanded 80 prisoners of him for this reprisal execution. Caruso moderated it to 50. David Broder would have approved.

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1783: Mutinous prisoners of the Swift

Add comment September 21st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1783, six men were hanged at Tyburn for “returning before expiry” from convict transportation.

This was a neat little euphemism covering a very desperate act at the sundering of the American colonies from their mother country.

We’ve previously covered in these pages the underappreciated extent of convict transportation from the British Isles in populating the future United States. Anthony Vaver, who blogs at Early American Crime, in his recent book Bound With An Iron Chain pegs convicts as the second-largest bloc of American “immigrants,” (after African slaves) to the tune of 50,000 souls in the 18th century.

The American Revolution put a halt to that human traffic.

In time, London would transition to dumping its criminal cargo on Australia.

But at the moment the colonies broke free, the Down Under wasn’t yet fulfilling that role, and policymakers faced a conundrum. The judicial machinery continued to sentence thieves to transportation; without an outlet, those unfortunates accumulated cheek to jowl aboard stinking prison hulks on the Thames.

What to do? In 1785, a Parliamentary committee looked back wistfully on the good old days:

That the old system of transporting to America answered every good purpose that could be expected from it; that it tended directly to reclaim the objects on which it was inflicted, and to render them good citizens; that the climate being temperate, and the means of gaining a livelihood easy, it was safe to entrust country magistrates with the discretionary power of inflicting it … that it tended to break, in their infancy, those gangs and combinations which have since proved so injurious to the community; that it was not attended with much expense to the public …

(cited in Botany Bay: The Real Story)

Well, it so happened that this effective and affordable solution, though interrupted by war, was not legally barred in the new United States.

So Britain did what any cost-conscious imperial power would do: sent out a ship with some convicts to see if they couldn’t still be gifted to labor-hungry America. “Perhaps a greater insult to any Nation could hardly have been offered,” griped one Founding Father afterwards.

Alright, America. You don’t have to be that way about it.

The ship detailed for this insulting mission was the Swift, and its passage was troubled long before it sighted the Chesapeake. The “cargo” of the Swift mutinied and ran the ship aground in England.

Thirty-nine escapees were recaptured and most sentenced once again to transportation, but six swung at Tyburn on this date. They really were at the end of an era, and not only of North American convict transportation: Tyburn itself hosted its last public execution just a few weeks later.

Nothing daunted, the owners of the Swift reassembled a slate of captives and made another run, reaching Annapolis, Md. on Christmas eve: fortuitous timing, because irritated state legislators weren’t in session and therefore couldn’t block the ship’s unwanted merchandising. The problem was, it was little better wanted by its intended market. According to Vaver, “[o]nly 30 of those on board were sold by mid-January … [the shippers] managed to sell most of the convicts by the spring, but they incurred serious losses after having to provide food, clothing, and medicine for those who languished on board the ship until they could be unloaded.”

They were the last British convicts sold in her rebellious colonies. One last ship made another voyage in 1784 and was turned away flat by every U.S. port, finally managing to offload in British Honduras.

Ere the decade was out, London had established a new penal colony at Botany Bay and set about transferring this particular “special relationship” from the United States to Australia.

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1763: Gabriela Silang

1 comment September 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1763, the mestiza Philippines national hero Maria Josefa Gabriela Carino Silang was captured and summarily hanged — along with a number of the soldiers she had led against the Spanish.


Monument to Gabriela Silang in Makati City, Philippines. (cc) image from Jun Acullador.

Gabriela took primary leadership of a 2,000-strong rebel army after its co-leader, her husband Diego, was assassinated by his enemies in May 1763.

Said enemies were the Spanish colonial authorities, whom Diego and his helpmate Gabriela had raised revolt against and with an army wielding homemade muskets and blowguns, driven from the capital of Ilocos Sur. It was Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines during the Seven Years War that opened the opportunity for the rebellion: the British even appointed Diego Silang governor of the province his army was in the process of conquering. They just didn’t actually help him.

Spain’s assault on the rebels, once organized, was sufficiently overwhelming to drive Gabriela Silang out of the city of Vigan, and then to repel her counterattack — the occasion for her capture and her death.

Gabriela Silang is memorialized in a number of monuments and place names in the Philippines; the women’s organization GABRIELA also engineered its acronym to pay tribute to her.

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2011: Abdul Hamid Bin Hussain Bin Moustafa al-Fakki, sorcerer

Add comment September 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date last year, a Sudanese man who “practised witchcraft and sorcery” was beheaded in a Medina carpark.

This being the 21st century — whatever the Saudi statutes might say — it was caught on film.

Warning: Mature Content It’s filmed from too far away to be gory per se, but this video clearly captures the severing of a man’s head.

“Abdul Hamid is understood to have been arrested in 2005 after he was entrapped by a man working for the Mutawa’een (religious police),” according to the Daily Mail.

He was asked to concoct a spell that would cause the officer’s father to leave his second wife.

According to the officer’s account Abdul Hamid agreed to carry out the curse in exchange for 6,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (approximately £1,000).

He was beaten after his arrest and thought to have been forced to admit to acts of sorcery.

In a secret trial, where he was not allowed legal representation, he was sentenced to death by the General Court in Medina in March 2007.

Few details are available about his trial but he is reported to have been tried behind closed doors and without legal representation.

At the time of his arrest, English language Saudi daily The Saudi Gazette ran an article entitled Magic Maids which said that ‘we must face up to the threats from some maids and servants and their satanic games of witchcraft and sorcery, their robbery, murder, entrapment of husbands, corruption of children and other countless stories of crime that have been highlighted by both experts and victims of these crimes’.

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1959: Harvey Glatman, signature killer

3 comments September 18th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1959, serial sex killer Harvey Glatman was gassed in San Quentin.

The dweeby, jug-eared TV repairman manifested an early kinky streak when his parents discovered the rope burns he’d given himself practicing autoerotic asphyxiation.

In time, he would do it without that important prefix.

Paroled from Sing Sing for teenage molestation convictions, Glatman moved west — to Denver, and then to Los Angeles, spending several years in monklike isolation from the opposite sex.

“Then,” writes Carlton Smith in a book about the BTK killer, “one sweltering afternoon in July 1957, the dam broke.”*

Glatman began trolling the City of Angels’ famous seedy underbelly for young women to model for “detective magazines” shoots — an understood euphemism for snapping illicit bondage pics. This excellent cover not only enabled him to have his victims willingly put themselves at his mercy in private, it enabled him to take their pictures as trophies.

They were images of Glatman’s detailed methodology of murder, which showed a sequence of terror by re-creating the entire psychological arc of the crime. He first photographed each victim with a look of innocence on her face as if she were truly enjoying a modeling session. The next series represented a sadist’s view of a sexually terrorized victim with the impending horror of a slow and painful death etched across her face. The final frame depicted the victim’s position that Glatman himself had arranged after he strangled her.

-Robert Keppel, Signature Killers



Photos Glatman took of two of his victims, models Judy Ann Dull (top) and Ruth Mercado (bottom). Images via Murderpedia’s collection, at least one of which is very distinctly NSFW. Murderpedia also has, as per usual, a detailed writeup of the Glatman case.

Glatman killed two women this way and a third via a lonely-hearts club meeting,** while losing a few targets along the way who were put off by his aspect or wily enough to demand a male escort for the photography sessions.

He was only stopped in 1958 when a police officer chanced to encounter him while attempting the more daring enterprise of roadside kidnapping. The perp was only 30 years old at the time, a frightening mixture of predatory calculation and homicidal lust: if not for this fortuitous early detection, it’s not too hard to imagine 1957-58 Glatman standing at the outset of a serial rape-murder spree of Bundyesque dimensions.

Unlike that later conniving, spotlight-hogging monster, Glatman post-arrest retreated quickly back to reclusion. He made only a token effort to deny his crimes; as soon as detectives tricked him (by pretending they had it already) into coming clean about a hidden toolbox full of incriminating evidence, the confessions started gushing out of him — another dam burst. He was begging detectives for death well before trial and willingly pled guilty to speed his own steps to San Quentin’s gas chamber. It took less than a year, time Glatman mostly spent in self-imposed isolation from the society of the inmates and guards around him in prison.

“It’s better this way,” he once said near the end, of his imminent date with those noxious fumes. “I knew this is the way it would be.”

Glatman’s LAPD interrogator, legendary detective Pierce Brooks, would later serve as a consultant for the made-for-TV Dragnet 1966 movie. In that film, the serial kidnapper, bondage-photographer, and murderer of young models, “Don Negler”, is conned by police into revealing the location of his incriminating toolbox — just like Glatman was.

The full film is available on YouTube; the interrogation sequence begins about 1:23:56. It clinches with the nebbishy “Negler’s” pathetic self-explanation.

Negler: The reason I killed those girls is they asked me to. (pause) They did; all of ‘em.

Joe Friday: They asked you to.

Negler: Sure. They said they’d rather be dead than be with me.

* Glatman is also a suspect in a never-solved Colorado murder from 1954. So maybe that dam had a few leaks.

** The personal-ad gambit led the press to start nicknaming Glatman the “Lonely-Hearts Killer,” which appellation was of course already spoken for.

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1895: The Vegetarian perpetrators of the Kucheng Massacre

Add comment September 17th, 2012 Headsman

On the morning of September 17, 1895, in the presence of the British and American consuls, seven perpetrators of a Chinese massacre of western Christian missionaries were beheaded at Foochow.

Anticipating the better-known Boxer Rebellion by four years, the Kucheng Massacre (there are many other transliterations of “Kucheng”) was likewise a response to the Celestial Empire’s frustrating second-class status as against European interlopers.

Christian missionaries had been a point of friction in China for decades. Though their rights to proselytize had been guaranteed in a hated treaty dictated to China by force of arms, they often met resentment or worse on the ground.

“You bring incense in one hand, a spear in the other;” one evangelist reported being told: that is, however honorable the immediate intentions of many individual missionaries, their presence looked like a stalking horse for less reputable western interventions like the opium trade. (That’s how it looked to many Chinese. Professional western diplomats themselves found the impolitic preachers a hindrance to their statecraft, according to Ian Welch’s 2006 paper “Missionaries, Murder and Diplomacy in Late 19th Century China: A Case Study” (pdf).*)

On August 1, 1895, these frustrations unleashed a river of blood at the village of Huashan in Gutian County, where a Buddhist secret society — known as “Vegetarians” in the western press for their characteristic dietary vow — fell upon a group of vacationing British Anglican missionaries still abed at dawn and ruthlessly slaughtered eleven of them. (There are some 1890s books paying tribute to the fallen available online: Robert and Louisa Stewart: In Life and in Death, and The sister martyrs of Ku Cheng : Memoir and Letters of Eleanor and Elizabeth Saunders (“Nellie” and “Topsie”) of Melbourne.)

“The attack came,” said a physician from a nearby town who was summoned to the bloody scene, “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, not one of the victims having received the slightest intimation of the intended assault.”

Word of the carnage struck western powers with similar force.

Incensed newspaper-readers literally demanded** gunboat diplomacy, and literally got it, especially when Chinese authorities drug their feet on the condign punishment the missionaries’ countrymen were clamoring for.

All this put British diplomacy on a sticky wicket, which Welch (pdf) deals with in detail. To satisfy the domestic audience, the government had to be seen to be taking a hard line on avenging the outrages; at the same time, London was wise to the Chinese state’s shakiness and wary that a “barbarous holocaust” perpetrated against the Vegetarians would trigger a mass backlash and bring the whole thing down.

An obdurate Chinese viceroy impeded the quick resolution everyone was after by making inflammatory public proclamations against Christians, and releasing without explanation six of the thirteen men who had initially been condemned to death in the month of August. The seven who were executed on this date were therefore only the vanguard of 26 humans ultimately put to death for their involvement in the atrocity.

Some of the execution photographs that follow are Mature Content. They’re obtained via Visual Cultures in East Asia; some also available at USC Digital Library.



Raids and investigations to bring the Vegetarian movement to heel continued for several months thereafter, and the whole affair ultimately was quelled without doing any of the wider damage that might have been feared — not even to missionaries who continued pouring into China.

And that, effectively, kicked the can down the road on the anti-foreigner sentiments afoot in the land … sentiments that would find much costlier expression a few years later when another secret society kicked off the Boxer Rebellion.

* I’ve relied heavily on Welch for this post. He’s also collected a massive trove (over 1,200 pages) of primary documents from this incident available in a series of pdfs (some quite large) from the Australian National University website:

** This was not universally so. The wife of missionary Stephen Livingston Baldwin, who knew some of the victims of the attack, urged a “charitable” response and sensitivity that “the Chinese feel that all the world is against them, and they are not far from right.” (New York Times, Aug. 10, 1895) In letters responding to intemperate coverage elsewhere, she acidly compared (pdf) western editorialists’ high dudgeon to their look-forward-not-back dismissal of recent stateside anti-Chinese violence.

It was ten years yesterday since more Chinese were killed, and burned alive and left to die wounded, in one hour, at Rock Springs, Wyoming (the very same Territory in which the recent massacre occurred) than have been Americans and English in China in the thirty-four years I have personally known that land, being a resident there twenty years and closely connected with it ever since. Ten years yesterday since that awful Rock Springs massacre, and up to date no one arrested, much less punished! The anti-Chinese papers of the town and neighbourhood gloating over the awful details and assuring all that there would be “no Congressional investigation,” and no waste of “enterprising newspaper eloquence” over the woes of the Chinese, “though their blood flow like rivers, as they had no votes and no friends.” In less than four weeks after the Ku-Cheng massacre, arrest, investigation and execution have all taken place for the Ku-Cheng massacre. Would that our colored, red and yellow brethren, so helpless in our so-called civilized and Christian land, had some power behind them to bestir Ministers Plenipotentiary, wave flags, and run gunboats to the front, to bully, if necessary, our pusillanimous Government into some sort of civilization — I will not say Christian justice!

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1866: Dmitry Karakozov

Add comment September 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.

Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.

The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.

“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”

A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):

I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…

If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.

If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.

Others would follow him, and in time successfully murder Alexander II after all.

Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)

What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.

I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …

… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.

If true, that is little short of fantastic.

The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.

So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.

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1767: Elizabeth Brownrigg

3 comments September 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1767, a jeering mob damning her to hell* saw Elizabeth Brownrigg hang at Tyburn.

“The long and excruciating torture in which this inhuman woman kept the innocent object of her remorseless cruelty, before she finished the long-premeditated murder,” says the Newgate Calendar, “more engaged the attention and roused the indignation of all ranks, than any criminal in the whole course of our melancholy narratives.” Hers is a very rich text.

As a middle-class midwife, Brownrigg mined the Foundling Hospital for young girls whom she would take on as apprentice domestic servants.

Brownrigg was far from the only one exploiting this ready pool of virtual slave labor, but it was her home’s marked sexualized sadism that really moved copy (pdf pamphlet). And Chateau Roissy it was not.

Elizabeth liked to keep the servants locked up, starving, usually naked, and would pinion their hands and inflict merciless corporal punishment for the least transgression against rules like “having any more bread”. The Old Bailey Online preserves one servant’s trial testimony:

Q. In what manner did she use to beat her?

M. Mitchel. She used to tie her up in the kitchen; when first she began to be at her, she used to tie her up to the water-pipe, with her two hands drawed up above her head.

Q. Describe that water-pipe.

M. Mitchel. That goes across the kitchen; the hooks that hold it are fastened into a beam.

Q. Had she used to have her clothes on when your mistress tied her up in this manner to beat her?

M. Mitchel. No, no clothes at all.

Q. How came that?

M. Mitchel. It was my mistress’s pleasure that she should take her clothes off.

Q. What had she used to beat her with?

M. Mitchel. She beat her most commonly with a horse-whip.

Q. How long did she use to beat her in this manner?

M. Mitchel. I cannot justly say, but she seldom left off till she had fetched blood.

This witness Mary Mitchel(l) was the lucky one of the Brownriggs’ last two Foundling Hospital charges: both girls had been stripped and horsewhipped so regularly that ulcerating, infectious sores — never able to heal before the next thrashing — pocked their bodies.

But Mary Mitchell at least survived. Her fellow-sufferer Mary Clifford was flat beaten to death, the body stuffed in the family coal-hole like so much rubbish. (In life, Mary Clifford was sometimes made to sleep there, too.)**


Detail view (click for a larger, three-panel image) of Elizabeth Brownrigg and her crimes illustrated in the Newgate Calendar.

For working-class Londoners struggling to navigate the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, here was a villainess indeed. London was swelling, urbanizing, bustling with vulnerable orphans and abandoned children like our foundling Marys; all its working classes, for that matter, had reason to feel endangered in the face of fights for their lives against emerging commercial powers working hand in glove with the state — not excluding the ubiquitous threat of the gallows for pitiable property crimes.

And as Peter Linebaugh observes, “apprenticeship” by the 18th century “was less likely to involve the development of highly qualified, skilled labour power than to be the means of organizing the exploitation of young labour power.”† Like it’s not enough working your crappy dead-end unpaid internship; now, it comes with flogging?

Somehow, Brownrigg’s husband and son were convicted only of a misdemeanor and got off with a few months in prison, but Elizabeth bore all the hatred of Londoners more used to seeing apprentices swing than even the vilest master. The Murder Act which had appropriated even the corpses of London’s marginal people was applied to anatomize our former midwife; her skeletal remains were long displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Oh, and the Foundling Hospital — which had cautioned the Brownriggs before about their excessive abuse of servants but not actually stopped sending them young girls to abuse — started finally instituting some oversight.


There’s a vicious and unsigned satire, “Elizabeth Brownrigge”, published in the September 1832 Fraser’s magazine. Over the years, it has occasioned a great deal of dispute among Thackeray scholars as to whether it might not have been an early creation of that master satirist’s pen. (Thackeray would have just turned 21 when it published.)

We’re not qualified to render judgment on the literary forensics, but the skewering of a murderess through the author’s mock-sympathy has a deliciously Thackerian flavor about it: the world was “incapable of understanding the height of her virtue.” It also underscores the continuing resonance of Elizabeth Brownrigg to Londoners 65 years after her execution.

The magnanimity of her soul, like Mr. Smeaton‘s pharos on the Eddystone, was firmly fixed upon the rock of the soundest principles, and diffused a light around it, for the guidance of those who were beating the waves upon the dark and troubled ocean of adversity, but was itself unshaken by the storm … [in prison] the fair and excellent Elizabeth adopted, as nearly as circumstances would allow, the same admirable disposition of her time to which she had been accustomed when inhabiting her own romantic bower in the village of Islington. She completed a large stock of baby-linen for the poor; she perused new publications of the day; and she composed an elaborate parallel between the characters of Socrates and Lady Jane Grey, after the manner of Plutarch. These are the two distinguished personages, in the whole range of authentic history, who in their strength of mind, purity of life, and extensive accomplishments, bore the strongest resemblance to herself; and to them, perchance, the attention of our heroine was more particularly directed in the quiet and retirement of her cell by the many points of similarity which subsisted between their destiny and her own.

Later, the fictional Elizabeth mounts a defense of such oblivious loathsomeness that it naturally impresses the judge:

“… punishment is a moral medicine. I may, perchance, actuated by too eager a desire for the rapid cure of my little and much-cherished patient, have dispensed my alternatives too liberally, and produced and untoward, an unexpected, and a most deeply-lamented consequence; but am I, therefore, to be condemned as guilty? In the analogous case of the physician, whose too-abundant anodynes may have lulled the sufferer to endless slumbers, or whose too copious phlebotomy may have let out the fever and the life at one and the same moment from the veins, would this most harsh and unmerciful measure be applied? … I demand from the justice of your lordship and a jury of my countrymen — as a matter not of mercy, but of right — the same impunity in my case which would be accorded, freely an unasked, under parallel circumstances, to the medical practitioner.”

Thackeray or whomever lay behind this pasquinade had a wider literary target in mind than simply Elizabeth Brownrigg(e)’s class. The short story is prefaced with a dedication to “the author of Eugene Aram“, meaning the popular novel published earlier in 1832 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton — a lifelong Thackeray bete noir. That novel concerned another renowned 18th century murderer, and it’s safe to say from the dedication that our satirist considered Bulwer-Lytton’s empathetic portrayal of the titular homicide a little, er, soft on crime.

I have been taught by Eugene Aram to mix vice and virtue up together in such an inextricable confusion as to render it impossible that any preference should be given to either, or that the one, indeed, should be at all distinguishable from the other … I had, indeed, in my dramatic piece, been guilty of an egregious and unpardonable error: I had attempted to excite the sympathies of the audience in favour of the murdered apprentices, but your novel has disabused me of so vulgar a prejudice, and, in my present version of her case, all the interest of the reader and all the pathetic powers of the author will be engaged on the side of the murderess.

* The Newgate Calendar: “On her way to the place of execution the people expressed their abhorrence of her crime in terms which, though not proper for the occasion, testified their astonishment that such a wretch could have existed: they even prayed for her damnation instead of her salvation: they doubted not but that ‘the devil would fetch her,’ and hoped that ‘she would go to hell.’ Such were the sentiments of the mob.”

** Elizabeth Brownrigg admitted to the Ordinary of Newgate the truth of Mary Mitchell’s horror testimony.

† Conversely, rogues who took to the highway and became working-class heroes were very often men who had absconded from their apprenticeship — for instance, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin.

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