In its day, the Tower of London has seen off with many an illustrioushead.*
Its last use as an execution grounds occurred, all but invisibly, on this date in 1941, with the shooting of German spy Josef Jakobs.
It’s safe to say that Jakobs won’t be competing with Anne Boleyn in the book sales department any time soon. He was, truth be told, barely a spy at all: parachuted into Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 with intent to reconnoiter, the guy was observed in his descent by (undoubtedly excited) local defense volunteers. They raced to the landing point but needn’t have: Jakobs was practically immobile, having broken his ankle upon landing. So that was the end of the espionage mission.
After a secret trial under the Treachery Act of 1940, Jakobs was shot at a small rifle range where a number of his countrymen and predecessors from the First World War had met their own ends.
To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.
I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.
The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.
* It should be added that the Tower’s bloody reputation correctly associates more with the doomed men and women it held than with actual executions: only a very few, mostly high-ranking, folk actually got the chop in the Tower prior to 20th century spies: people such as Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Monmouth were more commonly put to death at the adjacent (and public) Tower Hill.
On this date in 1820, Amasa Fuller was hanged for murdering his rival in love.
“I am a man, and have acted the part of a man!” he declared when taken standing over the still-expiring body of his victim, Palmer Warren. “I glory in the deed!”
It’s one of those problematic constructions of manhood that might do for a graduate thesis.
Our man-actor from the town of Lawrenceburg (and from a star-crossed family with a pattern of violent deaths) had been courting assiduously a “young lady”. Apropos of that graduate thesis, the historical records basically don’t even mention her name; according to a single newspaper article cited in Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, it was “Catharine Farrar”. The court records generally just call her the “young lady,” even adding that she was “not handsome,” as in “why are you people committing homicide over this prize?”
But let’s just say Miss Farrar was really great. And Amasa Fuller was really smitten.
Having wooed Farrar into an engagement, Fuller was incensed when he found out that she’d been swooped by a rival while he, Fuller, was away on a business trip. Murder by Gaslight has illuminated the fuller story of Fuller’s revenge; in fine, he returned to Lawrenceburg, and after several unsuccessful attempts to start a scrap with his rival, Fuller forced his way into Palmer’s office, offered him a pistol for a duel, and when the peacable Palmer again refused to fight, Fuller just plain shot him — right through the heart.
Strangely from our retrospective standpoint, the good people of Lawrenceburg viewed Fuller not so much as an unbalanced stalker as, well, the Indiana hero — a man of honor. After Fuller’s conviction,* Lawrenceburg and its surrounding Dearborn County petitioned almost en masse for Fuller’s pardon.
When they didn’t get it, they settled for an execution ballad, “Fuller and Warren”, that lauds “brave Fuller” standing “like an angel” on the scaffold’s trap. (Right before the rope broke.)
This ballad has some bitter words for the near-anonymous object of Fuller’s heart who “robbed him of his honour and his life”: “Cursed be she who has caused this misery; / In his stead she had ought for to die.” And it’s not much kinder to womankind in general:
Of all the ancient history that I can understsnd,
Which we’re bound by the scripture to believe,
Bad women are essentially the downfall of man,
As Adam was beguiled by Eve.
So, young men, beware, be cautious and be wise
Of such women when you’re courting for wives.
Look in Genesis, and Judges, and in Samuel, Kings, and Job,
And the truth of the doctrine you’ll find.
For marriage is a lottery and few gain the prize
That’s both pleasing to the heart and to the eye.
So those who never marry may well be called wise.
So, gentlemen, excuse me; goodbye.
(Some versions of the ballad — there are dozens of variations on record — omit these last and nastiest stanzas.)
Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.
In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.
Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)
After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.
For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.
Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.
That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:
It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.
A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.
I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.
To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.
The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.
Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.
On this date in 1469, Richard Woodville, the father of the queen, lost his head.
Though he died as Earl Rivers, Woodville started life as a commoner.
As a retainer to the Duke of Bedford, Woodville drew escort duty for the mistress of the house when the master died suddenly. Not one to waste an opportunity, Woodville soon made the merry widow his merry wife: at the time, he was around 30 and she around 20, while the late husband had kicked off at age 46.
For this impertinent and unauthorized union, the couple paid a fine … and their descendants enjoyed royal power. Well-behaved women and knights-errant seldom make history, right?
Marrying nobility put Woodville into the War of Roses game of throne, where he again proved a deft hand with sneaky conjugation.
In 1464, he secretly married his widowed daughter Elizabeth to the young king Edward IV. Elizabeth Woodville became thereby the first commoner in history to marry an English king.
She also became a lightning-rod.
The Earl of Warwick, so powerful that he was known in this era of uneasy-resting crowns as “The Kingmaker”, was embarrassingly undercut by the Woodville match in his own machinations to pair Edward with a French princess. A stunned Privy Council castigated Edward when it found out — “however good and however fair she might be,” they grumbled “she was no wife for a prince such as himself; for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl” — but the young king stood by his lady.
A love match? We leave that question for the poets and the novelists.
From left to right, Philippa Gregory‘s books about Richard Woodville’s wife, daughter, and granddaughter. Gregory also wrote a nonfiction companion to this bestselling series, The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother.
But politically, the Woodville marriage certainly upset the game board. Richard Woodville got promoted to Earl Rivers and others of the tribe profited likewise: this made good sense for Edward because these people would owe their positions, and loyalty, to him.
Contrast with the independent, arrogant aristocrat set like Warwick, who soon proceeded — and what part l’affaire Woodville plazed in his defection is up for speculation, although it was part of his own publicly asserted justification — to desert Edward’s Yorkist cause for the Lancastrian claimant.
Warwick’s rebellion succeeded in overthrowing Edward in 1469, and it was in the glow of this victory that Warwick had the obnoxious arriviste Richard Woodville beheaded as a traitor, together with the man’s son John.
Unfortunately for Warwick, it was but a moment.
Unable to govern, Warwick had to release his royal prisoner, and the sides slid back into open conflict. Edward decisively crushed the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, conveniently killing Warwick in the process.
Duly returned to her station, Elizabeth Woodville produced two sons for her husband, the boys history remembers as the Princes in the Tower — which is where the last LancastrianYorkist king Richard III is thought to have murdered them. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Queen Elizabeth is quite the bummer.
Ay me, I see the ruin of my house!
The tiger now hath seiz’d the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.
But her house wasn’t quite ruined after all: Elizabeth Woodville also produced a daughter, also named Elizabeth. This latter “Elizabeth of York” married another descendant of a commoner, who carried the Lancaster standard: this fellow of doubtful lineage would finally resolve the War of the Roses and reign as Henry VII. (Father, namesake, and predecessor, of course, to this site’s patron head-chopping monarch Henry VIII: Richard Woodville’s great-grandson.)
The investigations following upon the recent raids on Anarchist dens here prove the existence of a revolutionary plot on a vast scale and show that there was a systematically organized “college” … where bombs were manufactured and instruction in explosives was given … The prisoners talk freely of their “heroic conduct” and “noble design,” while refusing to impart any informaton incriminating those working behind the scenes and furnishing the funds. They all confess, however, that their minds have been fired by writings in the Press and speeches on platforms.
It’s a timeless story, really; with a tweak here or there, the excerpt above could do for reportage on seditious movements by the hundredfold. As it happens, its dateline is May 11, 1908 — Calcutta.
Separatist stirrings on the subcontinent were then manifesting themselves in the explosive revolutionary language of the day, and the chief magistrate of that ancient city of Calcutta — Kingsford by name, as in charcoal — was a character notorious for his harshness toward the movement. The year before, he’d had a 15-year-old flogged for trying to stop a British soldier beating Indian activists.
Among the more militant types excited to wrath against Kingsford was an 18-year-old Bengali who would have the privilege of martyrdom for the cause of national self-determination.
Khudiram Bose sought the judge out in Muzaffarpur and, with another young revolutionary, attempted to assassinate him in April 1908 by tossing a couple of bombs into Kingsford’s carriage.
Minor problem: it was the wrong carriage.
Instead of popping the nefarious judge, the bombs killed the wife and daughter of a barrister.
The other assassin committed suicide when cornered by police, but Bose would meet his end via the judiciary.
Bose played his patriotic martyr’s role to the hilt in the few brief weeks before his hanging, and found himself on the leading edge of a growing movement of anti-British bombers. “People are prepared to do anything for the sake of swarajya [home rule] and they no longer sing the glories of British rule,” one contemporary newspaper (quoted here) put it. “They have no dread of British power. It is simply a question of sheer brute force.” The editor was convicted of seditious libel.
One can now find plentiful Khudiram Bose hagiographies celebrating the youthful freedom fighter … regardless of his target selection.
On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.
Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.
When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.
These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.
We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.
Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.
Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.
And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?
Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:
Detail view (click for full image) of Bassi and Livraghi being escorted to execution.
Bassi was a penniless Barnabite priest famous for his powerful oratory* and his national enthusiasms. He signed right up for Garibaldi‘s national movement in the heady liberal revolutions of 1848-49.
“Italy is here in our camp,” he would say of the Garibaldian forces readying their (ultimately unsuccessful) defense of the Roman Republic.** “Italy is Garibaldi; and so are we.”
Alas, in this engagement, Italy had a lot fewer guns than the French.
The new French ruler Napoleon III, who had himself been in youth a revolutionary carbonaro in Rome, saw foreign policy advantage in backing the exiled Papacy and overthrew the Republic.†
Garibaldi escaped to exile, but many of his subalterns did not. Bassi was captured unarmed — he didn’t even bear arms in battle — and Pius IX, once thought a fellow-traveler by the liberals, did not hesitate to hand him to the Austrians for punishment. The Habsburgs stood equally to lose from any gains of the Risorgimento, and accordingly gave Bassi a perfunctory military trial, then had him shot immediately in Bologna.
For crowning his open-hearted life with this sacrifice, Ugo Bassi instantly became, from that day to this, one of the best-honored Italian patriots.
He possessed at once the simplicity of a child, the faith of a martyr, the knowledge of a scholar, and the calm courage of a hero … If ever Italy comes to be united may God restore her the Voice of Ugo Bassi … The name of Ugo Bassi will be the watchword of the Italians on the day of vengeance!
* Anecdote associated with Bassi once he came to firing up the Bolognese for Garibaldi: a poor girl who could give nothing to the cause spontaneously chopped off her own hair and handed it to him. This is the event depicted by Bassi’s fellow-Bolognese Napoleone Angiolini, Ugo Bassi sui gradini di San Petronio.
** Topical incidental: the Roman Republic lasted only a few months, but its constitution abolished the death penalty … so it can count as the first nation to abolish capital punishment in constitutional law.
On this date in 1896, seven months after admittance as the 45th U.S. state,* Utah hanged Charles Thiede.
By birth a Pomeranian — the place, not the dog — this Salt Lake City saloon owner had gone to sea as a youth and had the hard drinking to show for it. He was plenty notorious before death row for getting into the drink himself, in which condition he often disported himself pummeling his wife, Mary.
When his wife turned up “mysteriously” done to death — her throat twice slashed — outside of Thiede’s tavern one fine spring night in 1894, it didn’t take much connecting of the dots to infer the guilt of her abusive husband, who also was the one who happened to “find” the body. Thiede, all the way to the end, would maintain his innocence, which nobody believed; a fistful of private detectives Thiede threw at the investigation in the weeks leading up to his death turned up little but a weird story about Mary dallying with a vengeful bootlegger. (Or Charles Thiede’s own going hypothesis that some wandering Swedes tried to rape Mary.)
Still, it does have to be allowed that beating a spouse in private, however discreditable the deed, has a different character than slashing her throat on a public road. This was a distinct m.o., and there was little specific cause anyone could point to for Thiede’s having done it. Circumstantial evidence has a way of stacking up against you when you’re known as a violent drunk.
According to Frontier Justice in the Wild West, an Oregon firm was paid $150 to set up a scaffold (hidden from public view within a palisade) using the “twitch-up” design in vogue in the late 19th century. Thiede wasn’t going to drop: he was going to be jerked upward by dropping a counterbalance.
The hanging rope passed through a hole in the crossbeam, over two pulleys, and down the side, where a 430-pound weight was attached. Under the noose was a low wooden platform upon which the condemned man was to stand while being prepared. In the entire construction of the gallows, not a nail or pin was used; it was bolted together so that it could be disassembled and used again.
This illustration of the setup for Charles Thiede’s hanging appeared in the Aug. 11, 1896 Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune. The caption explains the apparatus: “The executioner was concealed in the tent at right,and at a signal from the Sheriff pulled the hidden lever, which drew back (A) the projecting piece of steel which supported (B) the iron bar on which the 430-pound cube of lead rested, causing the weight to drop, and the body to be jerked upward.”
This clever device worked perfectly, if the aforesaid Semi-Weekly Tribune is to be believed, but it would never see action again. Most Utahans preferred the state’s other choice alternative for execution, the firing squad; there wouldn’t be another hanging there until 1912.
Thiede himself was secretly buried in nearby Sandy, Utah, whose citizens were so incensed at becoming involuntary wardens of the killer’s mortal remains that an armed standoff between Sandy residents and Thiede’s people was only dialed down when the latter agreed to remove the remains from the cemetery proper and bury them in an adjacent feld.
* When the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to Utah shortly before the hanging, it at first accidentally addressed its order to the Territory of Utah.
On this date in 1759, Eugene Aram was hanged at York for murder.
Aram was the son of a gardener, but taught himself Latin and Greek and made himself a respected schoolteacher.
Aram had a special gift for languages, and began research on a never-completed comparative lexicology of the Celtic tongue — correctly intuiting, if not the identity of the distant common mother tongue, the concept of what is now understood as the common progenitor of the related Indo-European languages.
the ancient Celtae, by the numberless vestigaes left behind them, in Gaul, Britain, Greece, and all the western parts of Europe, appear to have been, if not the aborigines, at least their successors, and masters, in Gaul, Britain, and the west; — that their language, however obsolete, however mutilated, is at this day discernible in all those places which that victorious people conquered and retained: — that it has extended itself far and wide, visibly appearing in the ancient Greek, Latin, and English, of all which it included a very considerable part; and, indeed, it still unquestionably, forms a most important ingredient in all the languages of Europe. (Source at archive.org | Google books)
His might have been an illustrious name in linguistic history. Instead …
In 1745, when Aram was already 40 and teaching in Knaresborough, a strange event occurred: a friend of Aram’s named Daniel Clark made the rounds of local merchants “buying” (on credit) a variety of portable valuables … and then promptly disappeared. Aram was suspected of some part in this sketchy affair and detained using the expedient of an outstanding debt pending investigation that would yield a more satisfactory charge.
Aram, however, paid off his arrears in cash. Since no real grounds existed to hold him, he walked away, and immediately left Knaresborough.
There the matter rested for 13 years, time that Aram spent immersed in his language work.
Justice delayed was not to be denied, however. Finally, in 1758, the accidental discovery of a body in Knaresborough rekindled interest in the case (even though the body turned out not to be Clark’s). Thirteen years on, the matter unlocked with amazing ease; Aram’s wife (left behind in Knaresborough when our man blew town) had her suspicions, which led to a mutual friend of Aram’s and the victim, who gave authorities the correct location of Clark’s theretofore undiscovered body. (Namely, St. Robert’s cave.) Upon that considerable credibility the mutual friend (Houseman by name) accused Aram of the murder. Since the wife was also prepared to swear she had heard all these men, and Clark among them, conspiring shadily together, Aram was in the stew.
As a proper Enlightenment man, learner of languages, inquirer of science, writer of poetry, and author of dark and vengeful deeds, Aram didn’t bother with a barrister but defended himself, and very ably in the judgment of his observers.
“His defense was an ingenious plea of the general fallibility of circumstantial evidence,” records this encyclopedia. But he had to stick to generalities because (as he admitted after conviction) he was actually quite guilty, and Aram “seemed really more carried away by the abstract philosophy of his argument, than impressed by the terrible relation it bore to his fate.” The lengthy Newgate calendar entry on his case preserves some of these sorties.
He would eventually ascribe his own motive not to greed of gold but suspicion of cuckoldry. Houseman, who was probably just as involved (and probably in his part for greed) appears to have escaped the noose.
Aram became a potent literary reference for his countrymen as a partially sympathetic, Janus-faced creature: the thoughtful scholar encumbered by his guilty conscience, or one whose potential gift to all mankind is undone by his injury to one man.
On this date in 1623 one Daniel Frank was condemned to hang for theft in the Jamestown colony. It was the first hanging to take place in that part of the British North American colonies that eventually broke away as the United States.
Frank is actually not the very first entry in Watt Espy’s encyclopedic 15,000-plus catalogue of “American” executions — he’s the second. In 1608, George Kendall had been shot for a mutinous plot, also in Jamestown, Virginia. We don’t have a firm date for that event.
But rigorous calendaring, like lenient penal theories, took a back seat in the tiny and tenuous New World colony. Jamestown was the successor to Walter Raleigh‘s failed Roanoke settlement, which disappeared without a trace — and planted in harsh and distant environs, Jamestown had a couple of brushes with the very same fate.
Jamestowne, surrounded by Indian settlements and illustrated wilderness. Excerpt from 1608 map of John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy) found here.
Still, this was a delicate balance: Jamestown didn’t have the resources to countenance potential recidivism, but it also didn’t have the resources to go killing productive colonists — or scaring away potential productive colonists. A draconian 1612 Laws Divine, Moral and Martial evidently never sent anyone to the gallows, but was rolled back all the same in 1619 for fear of disaffecting investors.
Sithence we are not to bee a little carefull, and our young Cattell, & Breeders may be cherished, that by the preservation, and increase of them, the Colony heere may receive in due time assured and great benefite … so profitable succeeding a Commodity, as increase of Cattel, Kine, Hogges, Goates, Poultrie &c. must of necessity bee granted …
wee do strictly charge and command, that no man shall dare to kill, or destroy any Bull, Cow, Calfe, Mare, Horse, Colt, Goate, Swine, Cocke, Henne, Chicken, Dogge, Turkie, or any tame Cattel, or Poultry, of what condition soever; whether his owne, or appertaining to another man, without leave from the Generall, upon paine of death.
-The 1612 legal code, topically.
Daniel Frank — “Daniell Francke” to ye olde time Virginians — drew a hanging sentence for stealing and killing a calf belonging to George Yeardley, a major landowner and the former (and future) colonial governor of the Virginia terrtory. Frank, we can assume, was in a state of agonizing hunger when he undertook this desperate act.
Though Mr. Espy’s register of historical executions is an astounding resource, double-checking the dates is a recommended practice. In this case, I believe he’s used a highly fragmentary original record (pdf) and mistakenly ascribed the legal proceedings to the last previous date heading, March 1, 1622. [This would be March 1, 1623 by current reckoning; see footnote here.] This date has been repeated by any number of sources.*
But the narration very clearly states that “the tryall of Danyell Francke and George Clarke vppon Tewsday the fyfth of August 1623″ proceeded on the charge of
felonyously steal[ing] and kill[ing] one Calf ye goodes and Chattles of Sr: George Yardley kn[ight] of the woorth and Pryce of three poundes sterling. And after the saide Daniell Francke had killed the said Calfe, Thow the saide George Clarke as Access[orie] to the saide Felony didst help the saide Daniell Fra[nck] to carry the saide Calfe into thy owne house, a[nd] didst helpe to dress eate and spend the same, contrary to the peace of our Sou’ainge Lorde the Ki[ng] his Crowne and Dignitie.
Both men “Receaved sentenc of Death Accordinge to Lawe. Daniell Francke was executed: George Clarke repriued” — either because Clarke was merely an accessory, or as Martha McCartney plausibly speculates, because the gunsmith Clarke was a lot more valuable to the colony than the indentured laborer Francke.
The latter had to make do with his milestone distinction: The first documented hanging in the future US, and the first known execution under normal criminal law.
* My reading of the date is also corroborated (and Espy’s undermined) by a February, 1623 [i.e., 1624] record of the colony’s deaths “since April last.”