Posts filed under 'Children'

1752: Thomas Wilford, the first hanged under the Murder Act of 1751

Add comment July 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.

Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1725, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**

Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†

Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.

“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.

A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.

Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the going practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡

* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our going practice has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)

England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.

I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.

** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.

† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like these blokes.

‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.

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1805: Mary Morgan, anomalously

Add comment April 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.

An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.

“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”

That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.

Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.


Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.

We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.

The most recent executions for infanticide at this point in London appears to be those of Jane Cornforth in 1774 and Sarah Reynolds in 1775. According to Anne-Marie Kilday’s A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, hanging Welsh infanticides was practically ancient history at this point: the last such execution ordered by the Court of Great Sessions in Wales had been way back in 1739 — and the court would not order another one before its 1830 abolition.

During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?

The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.

One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.

The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?

Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”

Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:

Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.

* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.

** Look for Judge Hardinge in Lord Byron’s Don Juan:

There was the waggish Welsh Judge, Jefferies Hardsman,
In his grave office so completely skill’d,
That when a culprit came for condemnation,
He had his judge’s joke for consolation.

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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1786: Joseph Richards, aspiring milkman

Add comment February 27th, 2015 Headsman


Click here for the full page image from the 1871 Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising “cocks”, or “catchpennies”, a large and curious assortment of street-drolleries, squibs, histories, comic tales in prose and verse, broadsides on the royal family, political litanies, dialogues, catechisms, acts of Parliament, street political papers, a variety of “ballads on a subject”, dying speeches and confessions. The same story is also to be found here and here.

THE TRIAL.

Old Bailey, February 24th, 1786.

Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.

Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.

The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.

The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.

Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.

The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.

THE EXECUTION.

Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.

Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.

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1943: The last five Young Guards shot in Krasnodon

Add comment February 9th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1943, days before their city was liberated, five members of the anti-occupation resistance were shot in Krasnodon in the Donbass.

That eastern Ukrainian city* had fallen under German-Italian-Romanan occupation in July 1942.

In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.

During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.

The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.

The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:


Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.

In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.

The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.

The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)

They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.

Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.

* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.

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1944: Zinaida Portnova, Komsomol hero

Add comment January 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.

The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.

Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.

From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.

She was shot a month shy of her 18th birthday.

A large number of Pioneer youth groups were subsequently dedicated to Zinaida Portnova, as was a museum of the Komsomol underground and a public monument in Minsk. She remains to this day an honored martyr of the Great Patriotic War.

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1792: Three of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers

2 comments October 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1792, three men were hanged from the yardarms of the H.M.S. Brunswick in Portsmouth Harbor.

Their crime was participating in that famous or infamous act of seaborne resistance, the Mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.

There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.

Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace confrontation occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.

Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he renders the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti

The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?

The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …

Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*

The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.

Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation.

Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.

So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†

Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)

The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.

  • To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.

  • The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.

The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)

In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:

  • Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
  • Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
  • Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.

Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.

  • Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
  • James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
  • Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged was, like Morrison, pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)

* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.

After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.

** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.

† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.

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1833: A 13-year-old slave girl

1 comment August 23rd, 2014 Meaghan

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

On Tuesday, the 23rd inst., Harriet, slave of JAMES H. SHEPPERD, JR., aged about 13 years, was convicted of the murder, by drowning, of a son of ALEXANDER McKENZIE, Esq., of Hardeman county; she was sentenced to be hung on the 23rd of August. The boy deceased, was aged about 5 years, and was drowned in a common flour barrel fixed in a spring near the residence of his father. (Source)

On this date in 1833, a thirteen-year-old slave girl was hanged for murder in Bolivar, Tennessee.

The teenager, called Harriet, belonged to James H. Shepperd, Jr. On some unspecified date, she drowned a five-year-old boy, the son of Alexander McKenzie, in a flour barrel near his home in Hardeman County.

A local news account noted, “The circumstances as detailed by the witnesses on the trial, show the transaction to have been one of the most wanton and aggravated murders, perhaps ever committed by a female so young, and created considerable excitement in the minds of a virtuous community.” Harriet was convicted on July 23 and executed exactly a month later.

Harriet was the youngest female ever legally executed in Tennessee. She was not, however, the youngest person in the state to meet with that fate. That honor goes to twelve-year-old Jesse Ward, also a slave, who was hanged for arson in Knoxville in 1809. He burned down his master’s house and several barns because he was angry at being whipped.

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1738: Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmans, inviolable dignity

1 comment August 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the last victims of witch trials in the Lower Rhine were burned at the stake in Gerresheim, an ancient German city today subsumed by Düsseldorf.

More eccentric than demoniacal, the sicky 14-year-old Helena Curtens reported having seen some ghostly apparition during a curative pilgrimage to Kevelaer, and received from him some towels with weird occult inscription. (She actually did have such towels.)

This adolescent attention-seeking turned into a whole thing when judge Johann Weyrich Sigismund Schwarz’s long ears caught hold of Gerresheim’s wagging tongues.

The whole idea of witches and witchcraft was trending ever less fashionable at this time, but not for Schwarz: he routed Curtens’s occult encounter into the judicial Hexenprozess and got on record an accusation against her neighbor Agnes Olmans as well as the usual stuff about playing the harlot with a visiting devil.

Their case extended for more than a year; Helena Curtens was 16 by the time she burned.

In that time, Curtens stayed curiously committed to her crazy story, even knowing that it was putting her under the shadow of the stake.

Olmans, by contrast, fought with every fiber the allegations that her young neighbor kept confirming. Olmans even fell ironic victim to the uneven development of rational witch-law reform when she tried to demand that she be put to the ordeal of water to prove her innocence: it turned out that this backwards practice of pseudo-forensics had been barred in 1555, so Schwarz could not order it. At trial, her denials were easily overcome by the gossip of neighbors, and even her own husband — who recalled that the mother-in-law had a distinctly witchy reputation. Hey, ’til death do us part, babe.

Today, there’s a public stone monument to these milestone sorceresses, the Gerresheimer Hexenstein (“Gerresheim witches’ stone”)

Its inscription reads:

Human dignity is inviolable.
For Helene Mechthildis Curtens and Agnes Olmanns.
Burned in Gerresheim on August 19, 1738.
After the last witch trial in the Lower Rhine
and for all those tortured and outcast

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1838: The slave Mary, the youngest executed by Missouri

1 comment August 11th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1838, a teenage slave girl named Mary was hanged in Crawford County, Missouri. She had murdered Vienna Jane Brinker, a white child two weeks short of her second birthday.

Mary’s original owner was Abraham Brinker, Vienna Jane’s grandfather. Abraham was murdered by Indians southwest of Potosi in Washington County, Missouri in 1833. He died without a will and his widow, Fanny, and son, John, became administrators of his estate. John appropriated Mary for himself and eventually made her the babysitter for Vienna Jane, his daughter.

Mary, described as “shrewd” and “remarkably fond of children,” was “about thirteen” at the time she killed the toddler on May 14, 1837. That day Vienna Jane’s body was found in a stream on the Brinkers’ property. She’d been struck on the head and flung into the water, where she drowned.

Just why Mary committed the murder may never be known,* but she readily admitted killing Vienna Jane — at least, once Mary “was tied to a log” and interrogated with the sheriff, who “began to act as though he were going to whip Mary” — and her guilt was taken as given throughout her surprisingly protracted 15-month legal odyssey. The judge instructed Mary’s trial jury:

If the Jury shall find from the evidence that Mary, the accused person was under fourteen years when she committed the offense alleged in the indictment, then, unless they shall also find from the evidence that at the time when said offense was committed the said Mary had sufficient mind to know what act would be a crime or otherwise, they shall find for the defendant.

The jury found against her and sentenced her to death.

Mary’s lawyers — there were three of them — appealed on several grounds, but her age was not one of them. The appellate court granted her a second trial on a technicality, but she was convicted again and did not appeal further.

Writing of this case in her book Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier remarks that “Mary remains the youngest known person ever put to death by the authority of the state of Missouri. It is no accident that she was a female and a slave.”

Willard Rand turned her case into a two-act play, The Trial of Mary, a Slave, which was performed in the Crawford County courthouse in 1990.

* This page on Brinker family history mentions speculation that Mary was revenging her own prospective sale, and/or that she might have had an illegitimate child by her master whom the family sold against Mary’s will.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Missouri,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Slaves,USA,Women

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