Posts filed under 'Hanged'

1837: The slave Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews

1 comment March 1st, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1837, a slave named Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews, was hanged for the attempted murder of his mistress. He was 20 years old. The story of his crime is told in detail in Lewis L. Laska’s Legal Executions in Tennessee: A Comprehensive Registry, 1782-2009.

Julius was the Matthews family’s only slave and was apparently mentally disabled; Rebecca said he had “but half sense” and John said he “had just sense enough to be a good negro.”

Both John and Rebecca emphasized that Julius was docile, obedient and apparently quite attached to his owners, who had three small children. They were baffled when he brutally assault Rebecca and tried to kill her.

On the day of the attack, John was absent. Julius went out corn-shucking with Littlebury Fallin and his uncle William Fallin, both of them white men. He came home at 6:00 p.m., drunk, did some household chores and made a large fire in the fireplace.

At 7:00, Rebecca heard some whistles outside the house and asked Julius what was going on. He said he didn’t know. He went outside and returned with an ax, saying he would use it to defend Rebecca if they were attacked. Rebecca locked the doors and windows, then sat at her spinning wheel for awhile.

When she bent over to pick something up, Julius grabbed her by the throat and said he was going to kill her, take all the money in the house and run away to a free state. He tried to throw her into the fireplace, saying he’d made the fire to burn her body.

There followed a fierce struggle and Rebecca put up a good fight. She was able to wrestle the ax away from her attacker, unlock the door and run outside. Julius tried to brain her with a large rock but he dropped it when she grabbed his arm. He then tried to stab her with a pocketknife but wound up accidentally cutting his own throat instead. Rebecca wrapped her hands around his neck and choked him until she felt him lapse into unconsciousness.

Then she grabbed her youngest daughter, age three, and legged it for a neighbor’s house. As she ran she noticed Littlebury and William Fallin right behind her.

In the state of Tennessee, even a slave was entitled to a lawyer at a criminal trial. John Matthews refused to appoint counsel for Julius, so the state appointed two lawyers to defend him. (One of them, Alfred O. P. Nicholson, would later serve two terms in the Senate and, after that, on the Tennessee Supreme Court.)

Julius expressed great remorse for his crime, saying he would never have done it sober and he wished Rebecca had killed him. At his trial, he confessed everything and implicated the Fallins, saying that they’d gotten him drunk during the corn-shucking and urged him to rob and kill his mistress.

William, who lived in Kentucky, promised to help him get to a free state. The whistles, Julius explained, had been signals from the Fallins that they were outside the cabin waiting for him to kill Rebecca.

Littlebury testified and denied everything. William did not testify. Neither man ever faced charges for their alleged role in the crime.

The jury convicted Julius after deliberating overnight, but they recommended mercy on account of his youth, his prior good character and the suspicion that he had been lead astray by others. Nevertheless, the sentence was death.

As Julius was awaiting his execution date, help came from an unlikely source: John Matthews, his owner and the husband of the victim. He wrote to the governor, Newton Cannon, asking that the errant slave be pardoned so Matthews could sell him. He listed the following reasons:

  1. The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
  2. He was quite young.
  3. He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
  4. He was shown to be in liquor and the circumstances raised a strong presumption that he was induced by white men to drink for the very purpose of being instigated to commit the murder.
  5. The circumstances rendered it certain that he was instigated by white men, and with his limited
    sense, and in liquor, that he was almost a passive instrument in their hands.
  6. He was the only slave of his master.

That last might have been the nub of it. Matthews emphasized that if Julius were hanged and his owners got no compensation — and the state of Tennessee never compensated an executed slave’s owner for the economic loss — the family would suffer greatly. This created an odd confluence of interest between the condemned slave and the one-slave family whose matron he had attempted.

John Matthews expressed confidence that Julius “was not himself when he did the act” and added that it seemed unreasonable “to take away a life when no murder had been committed.”

Going against Matthews’s letter was a petition from the citizens of Maury County, asking that justice take its course and Julius be executed. Julius had had a fair trial, the petition said. Sparing his life and merely selling him on would not only endanger public safety but would also set a bad example for other slaves: “For what is to restrain the slave from imbuing his hands on his masters’ blood, with whom he is incensed, if he had good reason to believe that his punishment, if caught, is to only be a change of masters, and a chance that the may be for the better?”

The governor ignored John Matthews’s plea and upheld the rule of law: Julius was hanged at 2:30 p.m. on March 1, and his master was not reimbursed. On the scaffold, the young slave “confessed his guilt, and deplored his error; spoke of his mistress with much tenderness and warned the colored persons present to remember his fate.”

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1800: Roddy McCorley, at Toomebridge

Add comment February 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800, Rodaí Mac Corlaí — with due apologies for the imperial encroachment, we’re going to roll with the Anglicized “Roddy McCorley” — was hanged “near the Bridge of Toome” in Ireland

McCorley‘s death date — it was reported in the Belfast Newsletter — seems to be one of the few reliably documented facts about the man.* (See this forum thread for debate on the various nth-hand oral tradition)

He’s remembered as a rebel of 1798.

The actual nature and extent of his involvement in that rebellion is totally undocumented, but that doesn’t mean it’s not celebrated in an oft-covered patriotic song.

Post-rebellion, the (probably) Presbyterian McCorley was part of the so-called “Archer Gang”, men whom that newspaper account of McCorley’s execution calls “nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past.” That’s a hostile witness, obviously; the band in question looks to be Irish rebels turned outlaws, for whom plunder on the roads and vengeance on the rebellion’s enemies neatly coincided.

That coterie was gradually rounded up; its leader Tam Archer would also hang. But the national cause ran in the McCorley blood: the hanged man’s great-grandson Roger McCorley was a Republican insurgent during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s.

Thanks to @elongreen for bringing Roddy McCorley to our attention.

* Although even the execution date has been blurred by a later, martyr-making tradition claiming that McCorley died on Good Friday. He did not.

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1947: Walter Graham Rowland

Add comment February 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, William Graham Rowland was controversially hanged for murdering his lover Olive Balchin.

Balchin had been savagely bludgeoned to death with a hammer, but her condemned murderer was once a bit of a cause celebre for the anti-death penalty movement in Great Britain.

Though less compelling and memorable than the likes of Timothy Evans, Rowland’s case was one of those cases where the evidence pointed towards guilt but maybe not with the vehemence you’d like to see for the gallows.

The Crown and the accused fielded clashing eyewitnesses — the former put him on the scene; the latter said he was miles away — and blood on Rowland’s clothes proved to match Balchin’s blood type.

Five weeks before the execution, a convict in Liverpool Prison named David Ware claimed that it was he and not Rowland who actually murdered Olive Balchin. A commission of inquiry was hurriedly assembled to weigh in on whether an innocent man was about to swing. Ware provided them a reassuring retraction.

“I made these statements out of swank more than anything,” Ware told the commission. “I also thought I was putting myself in the position of a hero. I wanted to see myself in the headlines. In the past I wanted to be hung. It was worth while being hung to be a hero.” The inquiry commission issued its finding accordingly, on the very eve of Rowland’s scheduled hanging, which went off just as it had always been scheduled.

After Ware got out, he murdered a different woman by bludgeoning her to death with a hammer, then committed suicide in his jail cell. Rowland, for his part, turned out to have been already convicted of and reprieved from a different murder in 1934.

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1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel

Add comment February 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, the British hanged Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, a Pashtun leader who when India revolted in 1857 set up a short-lived independent government at Bareilly.*

Having word of the burgeoning rebellion elsewhere on the subcontinent, Bareilly’s native troops mutinied on May 31, 1857. Three captured European civilians were shot that evening; three more followed the next day.

Though Bareilly did not furnish the most spectacular massacre of the rebellion, it was one of several** that became grist for industrial Britain’s burgeoning mass media … and reports of bloody deeds prepared the British public to respond in kind. One Englishman wrote the London Times on June 3 (it was published on July 14): “When this crisis shall have passed, stern and unflinching vengeance on those who have mutinied and been guilty of atrocities, tempered with judicious and gracious clemency to those who were only misled into a willingness to joining them, will, I fondly hope, tend greatly to create and consolidate a lasting loyalty throughout our native troops.”

Other Britons were far more interested in the unflinching vengeance than the lasting loyalty. Outraged at the news that the Governor-General of India was offering mutineers amnesty, one wrote in a private correspondence on October 4,

I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London, or at Camden Town), would be to proclaim to them in their language, that I considered my Holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I begged them to do me the favor to observe that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.

That imperial genocide enthusiast was a liberal man of letters known to be downright softhearted when beholding his own countrymen condemned to death singly: Charles Dickens.

After the initial shock of the various risings, Great Britain set about methodically putting down the revolt.

In 1858, it was Bareilly’s turn. Fresh off defeating the most vigorous rebel commander Tantia Tope, the British commander Colin Campbell wrapped up the Indian campaign by marching his Highland regiments “in red coats, kilt, and feather bonnet, under a blazing sun, showing 112 degrees in the shade.”

That wished-for stern and unflinching vengeance marched with them.

Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, “three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day.” The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, “if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head.” McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, “he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt … Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here.” (Source pdf, an essay eventually integrated into the author’s book-length study Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914

As the man who had styled himself chief of Bareilly in opposition to British power could scarcely expect to escape such indiscriminate revenge.

“The complicity of this wretched man in the atrocities committed at Bareilly admits of no doubt whatever, and to allow him to escape from the gallows would be an outrage upon the memory of his unhappy victims,” the London Times reported on April 21, 1860, upon receiving (much belated) word of his execution.

* Great Britain’s initial seizure of Bareilly (Rohilkhand) from Khan Bahadur Khan’s ancestors in a 1774 war became part of the impeachment case Edmund Burke leveled in an impeachment case against colonial official Warren Hastings. As we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, that remarkable case also involved a shady execution.

** The largest and most inflammatory, of course, was Cawnpore/Kanpur.

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1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader

1 comment February 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.

Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.

Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners ever paranoid of servile rebellion.

But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.

Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.

Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.

The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.

So Gordon, a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.

“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.

Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.

But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.

After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.

Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.

Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.

Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,

I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.

Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.

* New York Times, Feb. 21, 1862.

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1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous

Add comment February 19th, 2014 Headsman

Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.

J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).

Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.

A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.

McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.

Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.

In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.

Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”

Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.

Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.

“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*

He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.

Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.

That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**

Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:

I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …

Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …

I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.

By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.

“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”


Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†

In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”

McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.

* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.

** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.

† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.

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1947: Ernst Kundt, Sudeten German

Add comment February 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Ernst Kundt was hanged in Prague’s Pankrac Prison.


Kundt (right) is honored at Prague Castle by Hans Frank. (Frank was hanged through the Nuremberg Trial.)

Kundt co-founded the Sudeten German Party, a nationalist-fascist party that would play a leading role as one of Nazi Germany’s stalking-horses as the latter maneuvered in the 1930s towards the takeover of Czechoslovakia.

The leaders of this movement were amply rewarded by Czechoslovakia’s new masters; for Kundt, this meant a transition from an MP in Prague to a seat in the Reichstag, a gig in the Luftwaffe, and various state posts around the Third Reich.

And of course, many of these Sudeten big wheels collected a different sort of reward after 1945. He was arrested in Czechoslovakia after the war and tried with a number of other Sudeten German leaders.

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1989: Vladimir Lulek, the last Czech executed

Add comment February 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1989, the then-united Czechoslovakia hanged Vladimir Lulek for slaughtering his wife and four children. (Czech link, as are the others in this post.)

Lulek, who died at Prague’s Pankrac Prison, has the distinction of being the last person executed in what now constitutes the present-day Czech Republic. (A Slovak man named Stefan Svitek was put to death later that same year in Bratislava; Svitek holds that same distinction for both present-day Slovakia and for the former Czechoslovakia as a whole.)

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1902: A day in the death penalty around the Pacific Northwest

Add comment January 31st, 2014 Headsman

The U.S. states of Washington and Oregon both hanged murderers on this date in 1902.

Oregon

The death knell for local public(ish) hangings in Oregon took place this morning in the courthouse of Portland’s courthouse under the eyes of 400 invited witnesses and numerous additional gawkers who scaled telegraph poles or stationed themselves on nearby rooftops.

Jack Wade and William Dalton hanged together for murdering one James Morrow just three months for two bits. It was an uncomplicated crime: the villains stuck Morrow up as the latter returned one night from paying court to a young lady, then shot him when Morrow made a sudden move.

On hanging day, the pair addressed an ample breakfast of ham, chicken and eggs, knocked out some hymns and an impromptu rendition of “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?”

… and then took a cavalier stroll to the gallows where Wade displeased right-thinking folk with his devil-may-care attitude towards his own execution. He tossed a cigar to the crowd, and played his fingers over the hemp as the rope was fastened, remarking with a wink, “it is tough.”

While the hanging itself went off without a hitch, the curious onlookers pushed through the rail meant to restrain them once the bodies were cut down and began scrabbling for bits of hemp. The sheriff finally had to clear the courtyard.

Even worse, “ten or 12 women witnessed the execution” from atop a building at Fifth and Main street, according to the Oregonian‘s report the next day. “It is doubtful if such a thing ever occurred before at a legal hanging in this country.”

The legislature some years previous had tried to get a handle on execution decorum by moving hangings off public squares and into jails, so this public(ish) execution wasn’t technically public at all. But as seen, these facilities with their barrier-toppling invited mobs and conspicuously feminized illicit peepers surrounding still affronted the alleged solemnity of the moment and led the legislature at its next sitting in 1903 to enact a statute requiring that “all executions should take place within the walls of the [state] penitentiary, out of the hearing and out of sight of all except officials.”

Wade and Dalton weren’t actually the last to hang publicly(ish) in Oregon, however. Since the law wasn’t retroactive, several additional executions occurred after the penitentiary-hanging law was enacted — the last as late as 1905. (See Necktie Parties: A History of Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905).

Washington

Chinese immigrant Lum You was hanged at South Bend, Washington on January 31, 1902. He shot a man named Oscar Bloom during a drinking bout that turned into a drunken bout.

Lum You actually escaped his condemned cell on January 14 when his dinner was being fetched by the jailer and on the loose for a couple of days, but was recaptured on January 17 by a posse. He allegedly begged them to shoot him dead right there, then changed his mind when some business-minded character actually produced a weapon. (Credit to the great Northwest for its highly accommodating vigilantes.)

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Lucky to be Alive,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Sleuthing,USA,Vermont,Wrongful Executions

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