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1901: James Edward Brady lynched for criminal assault

Add comment October 2nd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1901, James Edward Brady was hauled out of his jail cell and hanged from a telephone pole on the corner of Main and Lawrence Streets at Haymarket Square in Helena, Montana. He had been arrested three days before in relation to his attack on Hazel Pugsley, a five-year-old girl.

On September 30, Brady, who had arrived in Helena from the city of Boulder, Montana only the day before, waylaid little Hazel while she was on her way to kindergarten. He convinced her to get on a streetcar with him and they didn’t get off until they were three miles outside town.

Hazel’s mother reported her missing after she didn’t arrive home from school, and a search was launched. Later that day, the police found her walking home alone. She was “a nervous wreck, and when the accused man was taken in front of her she began crying hysterically, at the mere sight of him.”

Brady was charged with “criminal assault,” a euphemism for rape.

He had once been a highly respected and influential man in the Yellowstone River area and was credited with bringing the first thoroughbred cattle into Montana, but he developed a drinking problem and somewhere along the line he fell from grace.

Brady had been in and out of trouble in Jefferson County before he moved to Helena, and in Boulder he had become overly familiar with several children. After the Hazel Pugsley incident, it came out that he’d lured at least four little girls to his cabin in Boulder and then molested them.

He was not criminally charged in that instance, but was warned to leave town or else. So he came to Helena.

Although Montana had a long tradition of lynchings and emotions were running high in the aftermath of Hazel’s attack, the sheriff wasn’t worried: Brady was housed in a secure stone jail with five locked doors between him and the outside. On the night of the lynching, the sheriff was asleep with his family as usual.

At 1:30 a.m. on October 2, a mob of thirty masked men pounded on the doors of the jail and demanded the prisoner. When they couldn’t get the jailer to answer the door, they stationed men around the building to keep watch while they started working on the door with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.

The mob easily broke open the outer wooden door, but the next door was barred. Jailer George Mahrt was awakened by the noise and mistakenly opened the barred inner door just as the lynch mob had broken through the outer door. Once inside the building, the men forced Mahrt to hand over his keys, unlocked the last three doors, and barged in on James Brady.

“What is it, gentlemen?” he asked.*

In spite of the early hour, a crowd of about 200 spectators gathered to watch as the vigilantes hustled the helpless Brady out of jail and force-marched him, already noosed, six blocks to Haymarket Square.

The spectators knew what it was.

The lynchers summoned a saloon-keeper who had witnessed Hazel’s abduction, to confirm for the assembling multitude that it was indeed Brady who took her. One of the masked lynchers then forced his way through the crowed and slugged Brady twice in the face; this may have been Peter Pugsley, Hazel’s father. (The same man would later go after Brady again, but the mob held him back.)

“Now, then,” the mob’s leader addressed his prey. “Brady, your time on earth is short. Have you any confession to make?”

Brady had little to say: only to reiterate his innocence, and ask that his last paycheck be sent to the Boulder School for the Blind where his niece was a student.

When asked if he wanted to say a prayer, Brady said he didn’t know how to pray and asked that someone pray for him instead. One of the mob said, “May the Lord help you, Brady; that is all I can say for you.”

Then his time was up.

Several people already positioned on top of the nearby telephone pole jerked Brady up from the ground violently, probably breaking his neck, and as Brady hung twitching and dying, the members of the lynch mob pulled off their masks and melted into the watching crowd.

In addition to the 200-some people who witnessed the lynching, another thousand or so viewed the body by moonlight before it was cut down.


Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, Oct. 2, 1901.

A coroner’s inquest was held later that day. Several people testified that they’d witnessed Brady’s death, but they all swore they were not part of the lynch mob and developed amnesia when asked if they recognized anyone who was.

The coroner’s jury ruled Brady’s death a homicide.

On October 3, Peter Pugsley — the father — was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators hoped he would provide them with other names, but Pugsley said he hadn’t been present at the lynching and produced an alibi, which friends backed up. He was released the next day on bail, his bond secured by several prominent members of the community.

Ultimately, a grand jury heard testimony from thirty-eight witnesses during an eighteen-day investigation. It then declined to indict Pugsley or any other suspect. Later, some of the jurors said it was impossible to name anybody connected with the crime because so many witnesses refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

However, someone did pay for what happened to Brady.

As amateur historian Tom Donovan writes of this case in volume two of book Hanging Around the Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, “The Brady incident was the only case where an official was severely disciplined for losing a prisoner to a lynch mob. The Lewis and Clark County grand jury found that Jailer George Mahrt was incompetent and he was apparently fired.”

Not only had Mahrt, an experienced jailer, opened the inside door to the armed mob, he had also failed to notify the sheriff what happened until Brady had already been marched out of the jail. All he would have had to do to arouse the sheriff was press an electric panic button, which would have sounded an alarm at the sheriff’s residence.

In the aftermath of Brady’s death, officials in Butte, Montana announced he was also a suspect in the 1898 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Ethel Gill. She was missing for several days before her body was found in an outhouse.

Gill had been raped, beaten and strangled. Brady lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Ethel’s body was found. He quit his job and left Butte immediately after the murder, but wasn’t considered a suspect until after he was killed. Ethel Gill’s murder was never solved and Brady’s connection to the crime remains a matter of speculation.

* San Jose Evening News, Oct. 2, 1901.

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1567: Pietro Carnesecchi, Florentine humanist and heretic

1 comment October 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date* in 1567, Florentine humanist Pietro Carnesecchi was burned after beheading at the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome.

Carnesecchi (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born to a wealthy Florentine merchant family allied with the Medici; as a child, Carnesecchi probably dandled the infant Cosimo, the future ruler of the city. His education was patronized by the Medici cardinal who went on to become Pope Clement VII.

All these friends in high places would prove in time to be a poisoned chalice.

But the young man was in his glory in his twenties at Clement’s papal court, as notary and protonotary, excelling in his lucrative sinecures on the curial cursus honorum.

To his grief and/or glory, he met along the way the Spanish reformer Juan de Valdes, who had taken refuge in Naples from the Spanish Inquisition, and the spellbinding pulpit orator Bernardino Ochino, who was by the late 1530s to trend towards outright apostasy.

Intellectual curiosity was a quality dangerous to its owners during the Reformation. Carnesecchi had his own insider’s view of the Church’s warts to add to the influences of these brilliant associates, and by the 1540s was obliged by his affinities to seek his safety in the more liberal religious environment of Venice … and later, after a close first brush with the Roman Inquisition, to leave Italy altogether.

He wasn’t on the run per se, but his was a contingent life: a few years in a place, with the ever-present peril that a shift in the political winds could see him or his friends to the scaffold. He returned from France to Venice in 1552, spurned a summons to justify himself once more to the Inquisition under the furiously anti-Protestant Pope Paul IV, and was even able to move back to the Eternal City with the accession to St. Peter’s Throne of another Medici cardinal as Pope Pius IV. The Inquisition, nevertheless, drug its feet when it came to acquitting Carnesecchi once again.

“Nothing progresses!” he cries in one of his letters, for the Inquisitors “will not judge as right and duty dictate, for they suggest scrupulous hesitancy where there is no ground for it, and interpret that prejudicially which, rightly apprehended, is good and praiseworthy.” In other words: prosecutors.

As Popes are said to alternate fat with thin, and old with young, here they traded zealot of the faith with mellow humanist. When Pius IV died, the pendulum swung back against Pietro and the relentlessly orthodox** Pius V took charge.

Carnesecchi took refuge in his native Florence, governed by that baby Cosimo de’ Medici, all grown up now into an authoritarian state-builder. Cosimo had welcomed him before, and interceded on his behalf in the last go-round with the Inquisition; Florence, moreover, had a long-running rivalry with Rome in peninsular politics. Carnesecchi would have supposed himself as safe there as ever he had been in his peregrinations.

“But how did Ghislieri’s [Pope Pius V’s given name] reckless energy paralyse others!” as this book puts it. “Cosimo, too, was destined to feel its influence.”

Carnesecchi was a guest at his sovereign’s table when the friar Tomaso Manrique, the Master of the Papal Palace, was announced, as sent on a special mission to Florence, and desiring an interview with the Duke. The Pope had furnished his messenger with a letter bearing date June 20th, 1566, in which, after greeting Cosimo with the Apostolic Benediction, ‘he was called upon, in an affair which nearly affected obedience to the Divine Majesty and to the Catholic Church, and which the Pope had greatly at heart, as being of the highest importance, to give to the bearer of this letter the same faith as though His Holiness were present conversing with him.” Manrique claimed in the Pope’s name the delivering over of Carnesecchi into the hands of the Inquisition. The Duke made his friend and guest rise from the table and surrender himself on the spot to the Papal messenger. And he abjectly added, that, “had His Holiness — which God forfend — called upon him to surrender his own son for the same motive, he would not have hesitated one moment to have him bound and surrendered.”

Thanks, buddy.

Hauled immediately to a Vatican dungeon, Carnesecchi spent his last 15 months in prison, under interrogation, and sometimes on the rack.

“They would fain have me say of the living and of the dead things which I do not know, and which they would so fain hear,” Carnesecchi pleaded in (futile, intercepted) letters to old associates from the Curia. He admirably refused to incriminate anyone, but was convicted in September 1567 on 34 counts of obstinate heresy. They can all be read here — headlined by that hallmark of rank Protestantism, justification by faith alone.

Carnesecchi was stripped of his ecclesiastical ranks and his property, and turned over to the secular arm — the latter hypocritically “beseech[ed] … to mitigate the severity of your sentence with respect to his body, that there may be no anger of death or of shedding of blood,” which was, of course, the very intent and the effect of turning him over. Carnesecchi met his fate sturdily; his Catholic confessor complained that he was more interested in bantering ideas than penitence for his wrong opinions, and showed no proper fear of death.

In 1569, Pius V bestowed the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany on Cosimo.

Carnesecchi, long obscure to posterity, was exhumed almost literally when the Napoleonic Wars gave anti-clerical factions the opportunity to ransack secret Roman Inquisition archives. His meter-long file passed into a succession of private hands and was finally published in the mid-19th century, and as a result there are several public-domain volumes about the heretic in addition to the one we have already cited. Some of the original documents, with English translation, can be read in this volume; Italian speakers might give this one a go.

* There are a few citations out there for October 3. I can’t find a definitive primary source, and it may be that the original records are themselves ambiguous, so I’m going with the bulk of the modern and academic citations in favor of October 1.

** Anglos may recognize Pius V as the pope whose bull explicitly releasing Catholics from their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth put English followers of the Old Faith in an untenable position, much to the grisly profit of this here blog.

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1981: Mustapha Danso

Add comment September 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1981, Mustapha Danso was executed for an attempted coup in Gambia.

Gambia (or “The Gambia”: we’re going to dispense with the article here) is a sliver of a country hugging the Gambia River, entirely surrounded (save the coast) by Senegal.

It became independent of Great Britain in 1970 under the leadership of Dawda Jawara, who held the Gambian presidency democratically from that time until 1994. Mustapha Danso, our date’s principal, was one of a coterie of disaffected Gambian junior officers who were scheming a coup against Jawara as the 1980s got underway.

In October 1980, Danso walked up to the deputy commander of the Gambia Field Force, Eku Mahoney, and coolly shot him dead. “Although the first speculations blamed the constable’s action on possible illicit drug influence,” notes a book about Gambia’s subsequent, and successful, 1994 junior officers’ coup, “Mustapha Danso’s unresentful attitude after the incident convinced many people that there was more to it than what met the eye.” Mahoney may have been killed because he was viewed by the prospective coupists as an obstacle.

Danso caught a death sentence, but since Gambia never actually executed anyone, it was essentially symbolic.

That is, until July 1981, when Jawara was in London to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Danso’s former comrades in the Field Force seized the opportunity to join a coup mounted by leftist politician Kukoi Samba Sanyang against the “corrupt, tribalistic, and despotic” Jawara in favor of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From London, Jawara summoned Senegalese aid: Gambia’s neighbor and sometime rival dispatched troops who successfully crushed the rebellion within a week. Some 500 people lost their lives during the turmoil, and its leaders fled abroad. (Kukoi Sanyang died a few months ago as of this writing, but his version of the “people’s revolution under my able leadership” can be perused here.)

While the coup itself was suppressed, Jawara went pretty easy (as these things go) on his actual or perceived enemies. Danso was the only party to the plot who was executed, and Jawara went out of his way to declare normalcy instead of using a national security emergency to smash up everything.

“In the aftermath of this threat to our internal security some have asked whether it would be appropriate at the time to consolidate both the power of the State and the power of the executive. Let me state categorically and unequivocally that the system of democracy that has always existed will prevail. There will be no dictatorship in The Gambia — neither by the President, nor by the Government, nor by the proletariat.” (Source)

Danso was the first and, for 30 years the only, person executed in Gambia; the country has retained the death penalty in law, but was long considered de facto abolitionist. That changed suddenly in August 2012 when current president Yahya Jammeh unexpectedly ordered nine condemned prisoners put to death on a single day.

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1893: Scuffletonians in Mt. Vernon, Georgia

Add comment September 29th, 2013 Headsman

From the Crittenden Press, Marion, Ky., Oct. 5, 1893, page 1 (pdf).

ON ONE SCAFFOLD.

Five Murderers Executed In Public at Mt. Vernon, Georgia

Three Killed a Merchant, the Fourth a Child and the Fifth a Companion.

Mt. Vernon, Ga., Sept. 29. — Five murderers were executed upon one scaffold at this place at 2:05 p.m. today. They were Hiram Jacobs, Hiram Brewington, Lucien Manuel, Purse Strickland and Weldon Gordon. All were commonly called negroes, but the first four named were descendants of the Crowatan Indians of North Carolina, and locally were known as “Scuffletonians,” from the name of the community from which they came. Three of them murdered Alexander Peterson, a rich merchant, last July, the fourth killed a five-year-old child and the fifth murdered a negro companion.

Over ten thousand people, white and black, witnessed the executions. Every incoming train deposited its load of human freight and steamboats on the Oconce and Attamba rivers ran a daily schedule. Thousands of women viewed the spectacle without a shudder.

The condemned men spent their last night on earth without any perceptible dread. This morning in the jail several colored ministers offered prayer for their spiritual salvation, exhorting them to be firm and courageous. At 1:30 p.m. the march to the scaffold was begun. The sheriff and prisoners were seated in a hack surrounded by a score of armed guards. They stood side by side on the scaffold. They were requested to make a statement if they desired.

Manuel said: “I have every reason to believe that I am going to meet the angels above. I fear nothing, my sins are forgiven and I shall go to heaven. I tell you my friends, to put your trust in God — good-bye.”

The others followed in the same strain. Strickland shed tears, while the vast throng sang, “A Charge to Keep I Have.” The Rev. Mr. Ross, a colored minister, prayed fervently. Then Sheriff Dunham adjusted the black caps and a photographer took their pictures.


Image from here, which appears to misdate the execution.

At this moment Sheriff Dunham bid them farewell, shaking each other by the hand, saying: “May God have mercy on your souls.”

At 2:05 p.m. the trap was sprung. There were no signs of a struggle, and the bodies hung straight and motionless. Half an hour later the bodies were cut down and deposited in pine coffins.

Update: Here’s a lovely wrap-up of the whole sordid affair.

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1926: Sataro Fukiage, serial killer

Add comment September 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1926, serial killer Sataro Fukiage (English Wikipedia entry | Japanese) was hanged at Ichigaya prison for rape-murder.

Most of what’s out there about Sataro Fukiage is in Japanese (like this book). Born in 1889, his hardscrabble upbringing saw him enter the workforce at age nine. He was not a model apprentice, alternating escape attempts with evictions for bad conduct; stealing from his master to procure a prostitute landed him in Kyoto prison at the tender age of 12, and it was in his periodic incarcerations that, Oliver Twist-like, he learned the finer points of pickpocketing from yakuza. He would need those finer points to do the breadwinning for his penniless mother in between his stints behind bars.

His somewhat sympathetic childhood also included a voracious and deviant sexual appetite which was to blossom in time into a carnivorous pattern of abuse.

Fukiage committed his first murder in 1906, when he took an 11-year-old acquaintance to a remote location, then raped and strangled her, only avoiding the death sentence because he himself was still underage at that time.

Released in 1922, he immediately brought himself to widespread public notoriety for a 1922-23 rape spree with at least 27 victims — most of them, again, underage girls. He mixed at least six murders into the one-man crime wave.

He completed an autobiography in prison, but it was banned shortly after its publication.

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1583: Elisabeth Plainacher, Vienna’s only witchcraft execution

Add comment September 27th, 2013 Headsman

The city of Vienna only has one documented execution for witchcraft to its illustrious history. It occurred on this date in 1583.

Elisabeth Plainacher (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a miller’s daughter from Mank who had lived most of her 70 or so years during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that social conflict so productive of witchcraft accusations.

It would factor very specifically in Elsa’s case, since she herself was a Protestant in a very Catholic place.

Elsa’s daughter Margaret died in childbirth, and Elsa took all four of the surviving children into her own care while Margaret’s widower went his own way. Three of these children would die in her care; the fourth became an epileptic in her teens, finally leading Margaret’s (Catholic) former husband to accuse his mother-in-law of bewitching everybody.

The accusation was ill-timed for the “witch”: Jesuit zealot Georg Scherer got hold of the case and put the epileptic teenager through a gantlet of exorcisms that he claimed expunged 12,652 infernal spirits. Scherer’s accounting must have been as rigorous as his faith.

“Scholars and men of understanding know that devils have neither flesh nor limbs, but are spirits, and therefore need no place or space as do our bodies,” Scherer later wrote by way of explaining the crowded tenancy. “A hundred thousand legions of spirits could all be collected together on the point of a needle.” Scherer preached, and later published, a sermon this holy combat, titled “A Christian remembrance of the most recent deliverance of a young woman who was possessed by 12,652 devils.”

This was a relentlessness which Elsa Plainacher was not formed to resist. She was a humble miller with some family drama, and then suddenly she was under torture (German link) in the imperial capital with the day’s headline pulpit-basher at her throat. She soon admitted whatever devilries her torturers demanded of her: giving the epileptic over to the devil, desecrating the Host, all that sort of thing.

On September 27, 1583, she was drug by a horse to an open field where she was burned at the stake. Her ashes were consigned to the Danube. Plainacherin even persisted (more German) in the local vernacular for a time as a dirty word.

Posterity’s apology for this horrible fate comes in the form of a small Vienna street, Elsa-Plainacher-Gasse, named after her. (There’s also a Plainachergasse in her native Mank.)

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1803: Joseph Samuel survives three hangings

1 comment September 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Joseph Samuel just wouldn’t hang.

Transported to Australia in 1801 for theft, Joseph Samuel was part of a cohort of Sydney Cove convicts who, on the night of August 25-26, burgled a house.

The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.

But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazette fulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)

We’ll pick up the narration of the Sydney Gazette (Oct. 2, 1803):

James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.

Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.

Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.

Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.

While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.

at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.

All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.

Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!

Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!

It didn’t.

In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.

* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.

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2013: Xia Junfeng, chengguan slayer

1 comment September 25th, 2013 Headsman

China has announced the execution this day of “homicide criminal” Xia Junfeng, a kebab vendor from Shenyang.

This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.

Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.

These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.

“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.

Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.

Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*

“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”

-from the closing argument of Xia’s defense attorney

This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.

Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.


Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.

Chinese speakers might want to peruse the Weibo feed of Xia’s widow.

* Several years ago, self-defense helped a Beijing migrat worker avoid execution for killing a chengguan who attempted to confiscate his bicycle cart.

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1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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1909: Les Chauffeurs de la Drome

1 comment September 22nd, 2013 Headsman

At daybreak this date in 1909, three French rural bandits dubbed “Les Chauffeurs de la Drôme” were publicly guillotined in Valence to the hurrahs of a great crowd.

Most of the (plentiful) information online about these charmers is in French; in their day about 1905 to 1908 they enjoyed quite a lot of notoriety in southern France for their bloody crime spree, comprising at least 11 murders amid numerous home invasion burglaries. They were a throwback gang whose niche the 20th century would eradicate as surely as they themselves. In the time before ubiquitous mass communication and high-speed transport, a sufficiently bold band of robbers could have their way with a rural residence miles from any possible aid: this was one of the great terrors of Europe, and early crime broadsheets from centuries previous dwell often on the terrors of an isolated farmer or miller made prey in his own home by a band of cutthroats.*

The root of the word chauffeur is the French verb “to heat” — think stoking an engine, for the word’s familiar meaning of professional driver — and the specialty of the Chauffeurs de la Drome was torturing their hostages by scorching their feet with hot irons until the sufferers yielded up the hidey-holes of whatever treasure they had on premises. Their trial was a fin-de-siecle circus, and their executions likewise to a discomfiting degree. Though nothing specifically scandalous occurred as the chauffeurs were snuffed out on a public street, there are a number of pictures of this event, some of them made into postcards and circulated.

This was a trend not very much appreciated by the French government, but of course such images make arresting historical artifacts.

We’re here featuring select images of Octave David. When David walked the few steps through a sea of early-rising spectators to the portable guillotine erected on the streetcar tracks directly in front of the prison gates, his companion Pierre Berruyer had already been beheaded. (The chauffeurs were nos. 126 through 128 in the prolific Anatole Deibler’s career.)

He would have glimpsed Berruyer’s headless trunk already rolled into the large box that would soon receive his body as well. (The box had accommodations for four.) And while the execution team washed down the blade between uses, the grotesque bloody puddles and remains of fresh gore were a constant source of complaint. All three executions were completed in a six-minute span; it’s safe to assume that the smell and the feel of Pierre Berruyer’s violent death surrounded David as he walked to the used chopper. As the events here transpired, the third robber Urbain Liottard still awaited his own turn just inside the prison walls — in a few moments, Liottard would see two steaming neckless corpses stacked up in the rude bin gaping to receive him.


Looking alarmingly Christlike, the half-naked form of the condemned murderer emerges from the prison’s maw amid a throng of indistinct, black-clad voyeurs.


David reaches the guillotine; the assistant executioners are about to tip him onto the board that will carry him into place. The identification on these photos is from Bois de Justice, an invaluable site on the history of the guillotine; I’m unsure from my own observation whether to equate the figure in these pictures with the one in the first, above.


One of the beheadings (I’m not certain that it’s David’s) has been completed; the body and head are being transferred to their receptacles. Again, Bois de Justice has details on this scene.


Following one of the beheadings, the visibly stained blade is raised for cleaning before the third criminal is brought out.

* For some examples, see Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, a book we’ve previously profiled.

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