A number of comment threads on this site attest that many accidental visitors to Executed Today are genealogy researchers turning up information about a famous ancestor. The Internet age is a true renaissance for genealogists; while it’s not this blog’s specific objective, it’s a happy side effect if we throw the odd ray of light on the very odd bits of a family’s history.
It’s in that spirit that we present this date’s profile of Elisha Reese, hanged before a reported 5,000 spectators on September 7, 1849 just outside the city limits of Macon, Ga.
As with many crimes, it was the news on everyone’s lips in its own day, but then passed rather quickly into obscurity. Elisha Reese, age 50, was rejected in his marriage suit by 60-year-old widow Ellen Pratt. The nature of their relationship is not known, but Reese took this badly enough that Ellen’s father, 90-year-old Revolutionary War veteran David Gurganus, swore out a peace warrant against his would-be son-in-law … and then Reese took the existence of this peace warrant with a downright vengeful fury.
For what happened next, click on through to the proper genealogist — and Gurganus descendant — who has researched this story already and posted it as a three-parter on her site, A Southern Sleuth.
On this date in 1833, French immigrant Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.
A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.
After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.
Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.
The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.
And then, it really gets creepy.
LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.
When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.
Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.
It’s certainly understandable that dilatory appeals leaving it nigh-impossible to actually carry out a meritorious death sentence provoke aggravation.
But as always, one is left in the real sphere of human endeavor to choose among alternatives that each sport their own drawbacks — and where “drawbacks” are no mere debating points but actual lives on the line. After all, even a years-long appellate process that actually results in an execution can go and execute the wrong guy, to say nothing of systems that promise more immediate enforcement.
In a similar vein is the maxim that however adroit the hangman, etiquette forbids him entering the scene before the legally constituted appellate process — of whatever length it may be — has actually run its course. At least that much patience is not merely a virtue but absolutely de rigueur.
On this date thirty-two years ago, Nigeria committed a serious breach of that decorum.
Nasiru Bello, on death row for armed robbery — a crime the recently installed civilian government appeared to be easing off treating as a hanging offense* — was abruptly put to death by Oyo State before a filed and pending appeal could actually be heard by the court.
That’s what you’d call an irreversible error.
Five years later, Bello’s kin won a unanimous Supreme Court judgment against Oyo State for the wrongful execution, which stirringly declared that
“the premature execution of the deceased by the Oyo State Government, while the deceased’s appeal against his conviction was still pending, was not only unconstitutional, but also illegal and unlawful.** By it, the deceased has lost both his right to life and his right to prosecute his appeal.”
And then that same court reduced the plaintiffs’ claimed damages of 100,000 naira to 7,400: about US $1,900 by the local currency’s black market exchange rate. Bello, of course, stayed dead.
** Unconstitutional, unlawful and illegal here being used in particular, juridically distinct senses. Despite the finding, nobody involved faced criminal sanctions for reasons boiling down to sovereign immunity.
AMMAN, Jordan, Sept. 4 — Four men sentenced to death here last week for complicity in the assassination of King Abdullah in July were hanged today in Amman prison. Regent Emire Naif had confirmed the sentences of the special tribunal.
Those put to death were Musa Abdulla el-Husseini, Abed Okkeh, Abdulkadir Farhat and Zakariya Okkeh.
Col. Abdulla el-Tell, former governor of Jerusalem, and Musa Ayyubi who were sentenced to death in absentia are reported to be living in Egypt.
-New York Times, September 5, 1951*
The men hanged this day were among the authors of “the most dastardly crime Jordan ever witnessed”: the July 20, 1951 assassination of independent Jordan’s first king.
The cagey Hashemite monarch Abdullah I had been emir of Transjordan, an artificial British mandate jigsaw-piece that Abdullah got by virtue of cutting a deal with Winston Churchill.
This sinecure came with the significant drawback of dependency on London’s reach and interests, and Abdullah’s great achievement was to set Transjordan-cum-Jordan** on firm enough footing to survive the postwar sunset of the British Empire.
Abdullah faced an early test of Jordan’s chops shortly after his country’s 1946 independence when the Arab-Israeli War erupted. For Abdullah, this was a state-building opportunity; indeed, his government had for years backed Palestinian-partition plans that other Arab states had opposed — with the expectation that Jordan could help itself to the eastern part of that partition.
Abdullah did just that in 1948, invading and annexing the Jordan River’s West Bank all the way to East Jerusalem … while willingly acceding to (some have said actively colluding in) the creation of a partitioned Jewish state that was theoretically anathema to Jordan’s allies.
Jordanian territorial aggrandizement, however, brought with it the West Bank’s Palestinian population, severely aggrieved at having seen their aspirations to statehood cynically sacrificed by Abdullah. They got, into the bargain, Jordanian citizenship and a severe suppression of independence agitation.
So when Abdullah came to visit Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, a Palestinian gunman murdered him.
While the assassin himself was immediately shot dead by the king’s bodyguards, ten allegedly in on the plot were very hastily tried in mid-August … eight in the Amman courtroom, and two overseas in Egypt tried in absentia. Dr. Musa Abdullah el Husseini, Abdel Kadir Farahat, and the brothers Abed and Zakariya Okka were condemned to die, along with the absconded Abdulla el Tel and Musa Ahmed el Ayoubi. (The latter two would never be executed.)
According to the London Times‘ Aug. 29, 1951 wrap of the legal proceedings,
The events leading up to the murder, as they were described during the hearing, began with two meetings in Egypt, in September and October , between el Tel and el Ayoubi, who decided then that the king should die. El Tel then met el Husseini i Cairo, and henceforth directed and financed the plot with el Ayoubi as his chief lieutenant. Abed Okka acted as an intermediary, and Zachariya Okka and Farahat were later drawn into the plot, the latter ultimately providing the murderer with a revolver.
The remaining four men who faced trial — Dr. Daud el Husseini, Franciscan Father Ibrahim Ayyad, Tawfik el Husseini, and Kamil Kaluti — were acquitted.
This event, which might have been feared to prefigure a more terrible disruption within Jordan, within Palestine, even in the entire Middle East, did nothing of the sort. Power transitioned to the long reign of Abdullah’s grandson King Hussein, who was actually present at his grandfather’s assassination. (And might have shared his fate, save for a medal the teenaged Hussein had pinned to his breast that deflected a bullet.)
There was an element of cover-up in the conduct of the trial. The grievances and frustrations of the accused were not broached … The idea of an independent Palestine was, for the moment, dead. Abdullah’s assassination was a terrible revenge wreaked for the death of that idea, but it signified retribution for events that were already history, not the beginning of the new order … Though not without parallels in the future, it was without echoes.
Jordan would govern the West Bank, albeit absent virtually any internationally-recognized legitimacy there, until Israel attacked and occupied the territory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The legacy of this event will be familiar to the reader.
In 1988, Jordan officially resigned its own claims on the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization, “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
* Any number of online sites say this hanging occurred on September 6. Given the existence of September 5 papers reporting the execution, I think it’s safe to rule those erroneous. Wikipedia sources this version to James Lunt’s Hussein of Jordan.
** “Transjordan” officially became simply “Jordan” in 1949. Events in this post span either side of that re-branding, so for the sake of clarity, we’re just going to use “Jordan” throughout.
On this date in 1924, Patrick Mahon was hanged for the so-called “Crumbles Murder”. Despite a nickname worthy of the family pet, this one was decidedly adult fare.
Patrick Mahon was a 30-something minor crook and major tomcat who had recently conquered his co-worker at the bankrupt soda fountain company Consol Automatic Aerators.
Emily Kaye was “a woman of the world” by Mahon’s nudge-nudge wink-wink report, but she had a mind to be more than a bit on the side for Mahon.
“Her idea,” Mahon later explained in the box as he stood trial for Kaye’s murder, “was that if we were alone together and she could act as my wife, doing the cooking and everything, she would convince me that I could be entirely happy with her.” Such a design the 37-year-old Miss Kaye had no real hope of achieving, but our lothario was more than happy to go along with “this experiment — this love experiment, we called it.”
Their laboratory would be a rented bungalow on the Sussex coast near Eastbourne at a charming strip of beach known as the Crumbles.
Mahon figured it would be convenient for everyone. “After we had finished our experiment and Miss Kaye had returned, my wife and I could use the bungalow.” Clearly these were people involved in two altogether different canoodles. But those canoodles stood Kaye two months pregnant by the time they joined up at the bungalow on April 12, and she was putting her opposite number in a tight spot by telling people that they were engaged. The “love experiment” quickly turned into a Frankenstein’s monster.
On Wednesday, April 16, Mahon left the bungalow alone and took a train back to London, where he kept an assignation with yet another woman, Ethel Duncan. At Mahon’s invitation, Duncan spent that weekend — Easter weekend — at that same Crumbles bungalow. Later, when her little fling was the subject of a humiliating public reckoning, Duncan tearfully said she’d seen no sign of foul play there.
But behind a door that Mahon had screwed shut against his latest girlfriend’s accidental intrusion was a large brown trunk, stuffed with Emily Kaye’s contorted remains.
Mahon’s eventual story — once circumstances required him to produce a story — was that the two had quarreled over their mismatched visions of the future until an enraged Kaye attacked her lover and the two toppled over a chair. Miss Kaye struck her head on a coal bucket in the fall, said Mahon: that’s what killed her.
It was a dubious tale. The lead investigator Bernard Spilsbury, knighted for his pioneering forensic work on the English homicide beat since Dr. Crippen and the Brides in the Bath, noted that a fall upon the bucket heavy enough to cause a mortal injury ought also to have crumpled the bucket. Plus, Mahon had suspiciously purchased a knife and saw just hours prior to the fatal rendezvous.
But Plan A was never to talk to an investigator at all. Mahon was a warm-blooded man when the opportunity presented itself, obviously, but he also had the steel nerve to do the revoltingly meticulous butcher’s work that almost gave him a shot to get away with it.
Once Ethel Duncan returned to London, Mahon unscrewed his secret room and set about thoroughly destroying his victim’s corpse. The head that had shared his pillow Mahon incinerated in the sitting-room grate (apocrypha has it that Mahon said Emily Kaye’s dead eyes flew open during the immolation). Day by day he stewed flesh in pots to soften it for his purposes, so he could systematically cut it down for disposal in the fire or in small bags he could casually dump. Remember that knife and saw he bought just before moving into the bungalow?
As so often with mistresses, the downfall was the wife. Mavourneen had called Patrick Mahon husband since 1910, so she knew what being stepped out on looked like. In late April, she surreptitiously checked the traveling salesman’s jacket pockets and found a railway baggage claim ticket; prevailing on a friend to peep on the left luggage revealed human blood — and when it was reported, authorities set a watch on the bag. Once Mahon turned up to claim it, well, he had a good four months left to reflect on the advisability of disposing of his kit just as thoroughly as he had disposed of Emily Kaye. Maybe he meant to: when police turned up to search the fetid bungalow, they had four parcels of not-yet-disposed human remains for Spilsbury to reassemble as best he could.
From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):
September 2, 1887
Hanged Sept. 2, 1887, for the murder of a Meigs County, Ohio, citizen. It is believed that he was innocent but lacked friends and finances to clear himself.
Died Brave, Proclaiming His Innocence
Josiah Terrill, serial number 18,872, a Meigs County murderer, was hanged September 2, 1887. He met his fate bravely and, as is said of college graduates, “acquitted himself with great honor.” Like nine-tenths of the men who die upon the gallows, Terrill denied all knowledge of the crime with which he was charged, and with a last breath declared that he suffered death as an innocent man.
A few hours before the time appointed for his execution, the condemned man awoke from a refreshing sleep and asked for something to eat. The request, of course, was granted. Someone unguardedly expressed surprise at the desire to eat, and Terrill said, “You ain’t going to choke me off that way are you, without anything to eat?”
While Terrill was eating, a Missouri Colonel conversed with him, urging him to unburden his mind if he had any guilty knowledge. The murderer reiterated his oft repeated declaration of innocence, and requested the Warden to give him a drink of whiskey. But the man’s nerve was so great that the Warden declined to give him a stimulant to raise his courage for the trying ordeal.
After the final administration of spiritual comfort, the Warden read the death warrant, and the condemned man was lead [sic] to the scaffold.
Terrill was perfectly cool and collected, and his features shone in their natural color. As he stepped to the trap, Warden Coffin asked him if he had anything to say, to which he replied, “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge.” “You say you are guilty?” queried the Warden who, with others, misunderstood him. “I say I ain’t guilty of this here charge,” reiterated Terrill. “God in heaven knows I ain’t guilty. There are some people and lawyers in Pomeroy who think they have got satisfaction on me now. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Warden Coffin then stepped over and shook hands with the condemned man, bidding him good-bye. The minister gravely followed his example, saying in a solemn tone: “Josiah, put your confidence and trust in the Lord.” “I have,” replied Terrill.
He was placed over the trap and, standing as if being measured for a suit of clothes, permitted Deputy Cherrington to adjust the ropes. There was some difficulty in fastening a strap, and he considerately moved his feet to facilitate operations. The black-cap–a rude bag–was placed over his head and the noose adjusted. At 12:34 A.M., before the audience realized that it had happened, Warden Coffin shot the lever from north to south. Rattle went the trap against the sides of the scaffold, and with a boom the body of the condemned man shot down seven feet, oscillated once or twice and then became quiet. There was not a twitch of the muscles or a movement of the body.
Instantly there was a plank placed across two chairs on the platform directly under the body of the hanging man, and two doctors sprang upon the plank to take note of the pulse and respiration. The heart beats were very rapid at first, but after six minutes began to lessen. In twelve minutes he was dead. The rope was lowered so the body could be placed on the plank, the knot was cut and the noose loosened, and then the black-cap removed, exposing the swollen and blackened face. His neck had been broken by the fall, but the rope had not cut the flesh. The body was placed in a coffin and shipped to Pomeroy, where it was buried by the dead man’s mother.
Strange to say, he expressed no desire to meet the aged woman before his death; on the contrary, he remarked at supper that the only person he cared to see was his child (illegitimate).
There has always existed grave doubts in the minds of some of Meigs County’s best citizens as to Terrill’s guilt. The evidence against him was purely circumstantial, but the jury evidently thought it strong enough to warrant a verdict of guilty.
He was accused of murdering an old man for whom he had previously worked. The opinion of the writer is that Josiah Terrill died an innocent man. This opinion is based upon evidence, and what could be learned from some of Meigs County’s best citizens. Certain it is that he was a poor illiterate man, without money and without influential friends.
Charles Phillips, the murdered man, was aged and decrepit. By frugality and hard toil he had accumulated quite a sum of money. Robbery was the motive of the crime, and a bludgeon and knife were the instruments of destruction.
Innocent or guilty, Terrill is in the hands of a just God, where he will remain until that great “Day of Judgment,” when all wrongs will be righted, and the innocent shown and the guilty punished according to the unerring judgement of an ETERNAL GOD.
[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …
To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.
Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.
Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.
Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”
Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.
Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.
The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.
Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.
The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.
Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.
The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.
On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.
With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.
Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.
Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.
Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).
The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.
When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.
Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.
Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”
On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.
When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.
Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.
His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.
The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.
He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.
Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.
Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.
On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.
Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.
This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.
The investigation went nowhere.
On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.
What happened next is unprintable.
Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.
As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.
As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.
At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”
Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.
When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”
Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.
The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.
(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)
At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.
Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”
Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.
The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.
In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.
Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.
Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.
So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.
He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:
Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.
He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.
In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.
His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”
He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.
On July 18 in Northampton Township, the three men, with their faces painted, burst into the house of Joseph Burr. By “threats of violence” they convinced Burr’s wife to give up her keys to the locked cabinets and made off with the following:
1 silver sauceboat
8 silver tablespoons
9 silver teaspoons
A sum of money
A considerable quantity of shirts, aprons, caps and handkerchiefs
A great parcel of “wearing apparel made in the manner of people called Quakers”
They also took three valuable horses from Burr’s stable and rode off on them.
Burr and his wife told the authorities they knew the robbers were Irish because “they all had the brogue upon their tongues,” and it turned out three Irish laborers had gone missing from a farm near Mount Holly.
The thieves’ trail was discovered and a posse caught them red-handed, as it were, riding the stolen horses and carrying the stolen goods.
Justice acted quickly and Fagan, Grimes and Johnson were executed a mere six weeks after their crime. The Burlington County Treasury compensated the jailer his expenses in feeding the three men for 39 days.
Although Hurley had a drop of 7.5 feet, the fall failed to kill him: he strangled to death at the end of the rope with nauseating convulsions.
Oddly, this outcome — hardly unusual at the time — found its way into subsequent medical literature covering several distinct phenomena.
We turn in the first instance to the report of Charles Croker King, professor of anatomy at Galway’s Queen’s College. He witnessed the hanging and contrived to examine the young man’s body — both immediately after execution, and on the following day. His detailed account of observations from the 1854 Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science is presented, he says, further to helping coroners determine whether a possible suicide has, in fact, hanged him- or herself. King also takes his examination further afield to rebut the then-current pseudoscience of phrenology.
(Keep an eye out for his notice of gallows priapism.)
An individual having been found dead, and suspended by the neck, a medico-legal question has frequently arisen, as to whether the suspension of the body took place previous to or subsequent to death; and the determination of this point may constitute the important difference between an act of suicide or the perpetration of a murder. Suspicion might fall upon an individual known to be interested in the death of the deceased. The body may have been found under circumstances rendering self-destruction improbable; collateral circumstances may have strengthened suspicion, already strong against the accused; and at last the evidence may be so nicely balanced that the slightest additional testimony would be capable of turning the beam of justice in either direction.
A fearful responsibility might thus devolve upon the medical witness; his opinion would, of necessity, carry considerable weight, and he might be asked this important question, Could this individual have died by his own hands? Life or death may hang upon the answer; if it be erroneous, the guilty may escape from merited punishment; or, what is of still greater moment, and fearful to contemplate, an innocent life may be sacrificed and the earthly prospects of an entire family unjustly blasted.
Considerations of this kind have induced me to lay before the profession the result of a careful examination of the body of a malefactor whose execution I lately witnessed.
The circumstances attending the murder may not be without interest to some of my readers. Last summer a young girl, who had been sent on a message to a distance of five or six miles, was found barbarously murdered at the margin of Dunsandle Wood. A deep wound in the throat appeared to have been the immediate cause of death. Suspicion fell upon a person of the name of Hurley; he had been a fellow-servant of the girl; he had been seen on the day of the murder in the vicinity of the place where the body was found, walking (apparently upon friendly terms) with the deceased.
Hurley’s previous character was of an unsatisfactory nature: he never engaged in any regular occupation, but, on the contrary, led rather a wandering life, obtaining a livelihood as a messenger, and but seldom having or wishing for continuous employment; he was twenty-two years of age, about five feet seven inches in height, and weighed ten and a half stone, muscular, and athletic. Having been arrested, he contrived to effect his escape, which he accomplished by daring acts of agility. A large reward was offered for his apprehension, but for some weeks he contrived to elude justice; at last, worn out by fatigue and constant watching, he was apprehended while asleep in the open air. The evidence adduced at the trial, on the part of the Crown, established the culprit’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt; he was consequently found guilty, and the 27th of August was fixed for his execution. The prisoner, upon being sentenced, declared his innocence, and cried for vengeance upon both judge and jury, either in this world, or in that to come.
On Saturday, the 27th of August, 1853, at twenty-five minutes past 6 o clock in the evening, the extreme penalty of the law was carried into effect; the execution had been delayed by the under-sheriff until this late hour from humane motives; the arrival of a reprieve by the late mail (though not to be expected) was within the reach of possibility.
A special messenger having returned from the train, hope was at an end, and the melancholy procession from the chapel to the place of execution formed. The culprit maintained considerable fortitude, but the frequent drawn, deep inspirations, and faltering steps, bespoke the sufferings of the inward man. It was a beautiful autumnal evening; the sun, as if in mockery of the solemn scene, danced upon the adjoining river, and illuminated a dense crowd of human beings, principally women and children, congregated to witness tne dying struggles of a fellow creature. Their conduct, upon the whole, was not indecorous, but they evidently regarded the scene as a serious amusement.
It is not my intention at present to discuss the propriety of public executions; I shall content myself by mentioning a fact which has a tendency to support the views of those who doubt the value of such exhibitions as terrible examples, calculated to deter others from the commission of crime; it is as follows. The excellent and humane governor of the county gaol mentioned to me that, some years ago, a convicted criminal admitted to him, that he had witnessed every execution that had taken place for years in front of the very gaol in which he was at that time confined. We learn from this circumstance, at all events, that in this particular case the examples fell valueless, for this man lay under sentence of death for murder.
The criminal, having been placed on the drop, in a firm voice acknowledged his guilt, the justice of the sentence, and expressed regret for the language he had used towards the judge and jury. The fatal bolt was withdrawn, and he fell through a space of seven feet and a half. The rope used was ten lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope; and on the noose being tightened by the executioner corresponded to the occipital protuberance. The body fell with a tremendous jerk, and oscillated for a few minutes; the arms and legs became rigid; the forearms flexed on the arms, the fingers flexed into the palms of the hands, and the thighs abducted and slightly drawn up towards the abdomen; the sternomastoid muscles were affected with spasms, and the hands became livid. After a short time the limbs relaxed; the legs approached each other, the toes pointing downwards; the hands became pale, fell down by the side, and the fingers became relaxed. The body, having been suspended for forty-five minutes, was cut down, and the cord removed from the neck.
There was not any protrusion, or unnatural suffusion of the eyes; the upper and lower teeth were half an inch apart, and the tongue was indented by them, the lips were rather livid, and the face pale; a slight depression marked the position of the rope; there was not any discoloration of the integuments of the neck, breast, or shoulders; the thumbs and fingers were flaccid; the ring and little fingers were flexed into the palms of the hands, but could be easily extended; the cap in which the head had been enveloped was slightly stained by bloody mucus, which had flowed from the mouth and nose; the bladder was empty, the criminal having made water a few minutes before his execution; the penis appeared as if it had been recently erect; it lay upwards against the abdomen, and a thin transparent fluid had stained the shirt; this fluid being thin and transparent, its source was suggested as the prostate gland; however, I removed a drop between two portions of glass, and on placing it in the field of a microscope, numerous spermatozoa were detected. No further examination of the body could be made this evening, but in the morning, eighteen hours after death, the body in the interim having lain on its back, the following additional observations were made: — Cadaveric stiffening of the body; lividity of the face; lips and ears purple, integuments of the shoulders and of the upper and front part of the chest, now livid; the site of the rope was scarcely perceptible; and, if attention were not particularly directed to it, it would in all probability escape observation; in one place, for about the extent of a quarter of an inch, there was a slight parchment discoloration of the skin. An incision was made one inch above, and a second one inch below, the former position of the rope, and the integuments were raised with great care; there was not the slightest extravasation of blood, nor did the areolar tissue present any peculiar silvery or white appearance; the thyroid cartilage was, perhaps, slightly flattened, but not broken; none of the bloodvessels [sic] or muscles were injured in the slightest degree (the lining membrane of the carotids was carefully examined); the mucous membrane of the larynx was of a bright red colour; both the tongue and brain were in a high state of congestion, — the ventricles of the latter contained about two ounces of serum; the posterior inferior lobes of the lungs were also congested; the right cavities of the heart were full of dark-coloured fluid blood; the left side of the heart was empty; there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.
From an attentive perusal of the post-mortem examination, above detailed, it will be evident that, in this particular case, there was a singular absence of those appearances generally regarded as necessary accompaniments of hanging during life; and the case reaches its maximum interest in legal medicine when we consider that, in this instance, death from hanging had occurred in its most violent form, and still was unattended even with those slight evidences which are enumerated by many authors as constant attendants upon death the result of simple suspension.
It need not, I think, be regarded as a fanciful conception, to imagine the possibility of a case occurring in which, if death were suicidal, the body must have fallen from a height; and if those appearances, which might be expected to be of necessity present, were, as in the above case, completely absent, an erroneous conclusion might be arrived at I, therefore, place this case of violent death, that was witnessed, and about which there can be no possible mistake, on record, in order that a disproportionate value may not be placed on negative results in cases involved in much obscurity.
In conclusion, I would say a word or two on the configuration of this man’s head in connexion with the system of phrenology.* The organs denominated “benevolence,” “love of approbation,” “concentrativeness,” and “adhesiveness,” were all well developed. If phrenology be true, benevolence should have deterred this man from imbruing his hands in blood. Death upon the scaffold ill accords with love of approbation. Concentrativeness should have attached him to some locality, whereas he was a notorious wanderer. The organ of “alimentiveneas” was small, notwithstanding which, from the day of his committal until the hour of his execution, he constantly applied for an increased quantity and an improved quality of food. The organs of “destructiveness,” “adhesiveness,” and “acquisitiveness,” were exceedingly small in their development, and, nevertheless, for the sake of a few pounds (of which he robbed his victim) he deliberately planned and perpetrated the murder of an innocent, unoffending girl, his friend and former fellow-servant.
I am well aware how difficult it is to produce any facts, no matter how apparently opposed to the system of phrenology, that its supporters will not endeavour to reconcile to their peculiar views. So carefully do they shelter themselves by such ingenious evasions as peculiarities of temperament, increased and diminished energy, and compensating action of organs, &c., &c.,but by such subterfuges they abandon the fundamental principle of phrenology, which makes size the measure of power.
In these observations I do not wish to be understood as undervaluing general cranial development; I recognise the brain as the seat of intellect, and consider that an imperfect development of it is incompatible with high mental acquirements; but such a view is perfectly distinct from the theory of the localization of organs from the mapping out of the head into distinct compartments, and assigning to each place a particular mental quality.
* The cranium was measured with a pair of phrenological callipers, and the development of the organs compared with a collection of crania in the Anatomical Museum, by which means the absolute as well as the relative size of the organs was obtained.
Victorian scientific journals had not yet had done with Mr. Hurley at this point.
Twelve years later, the Irish polymath Samuel Haughton undertook to bring scientific principles to the impressionistic and error-prone methods prevailing on the gallows of is time — methods that produced cases like the “most violent death” his predecessor had observed at Hurley’s execution.
Haughton’s seminal paper on this matter, “On Hanging, considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view,” is available online. Within, the author veers curiously from the Pentateuch to a speculative consideration of how Telemachus might have executed Penelope’s handmaids, to the down-and-dirty physics of killing a fellow on the gallows.
But its practical considerations come at last to the cold hard metrics of a noose’s striking-force upon a convict’s neck: the executioner’s moneyball. In this paper, he works out an early version of the formula that would within a few short years become the prevailing practice for British hangings. Hurley provides a case study for the satisfactory contrast to be observed when a better-selected fall boosts the hemp’s striking power by 42%.
I have searched in vain for well-authenticated instances of fracture of the cervical vertebrae produced by the usual method of hanging. Among the longest drops that I can find recorded, are two observed by Dr. Charles Croker King, when Professor of Anatomy in the Queen’s College, Galway.
Case I. A young man, named Hurley, was executed in Galway, at 6.25 p.m. on the 27th of August, 1853, for the murder of a young woman in Dunsandle Wood. The rope used was 10 lines in diameter; the knot was large, formed of three turns of the rope, and, on the noose being tightened by the executioner, corresponded to the occipital protuberance. His weight was 10½ stone, and he was allowed a drop of 7½ feet. These data give us as follows: —
work done = 147 x 15⁄2 = 1102 foot-pounds.
In this case, as Dr. King remarks, “there was no dislocation or fracture of the vertebral column, or injury of the ligaments or of the spinal cord.”
Case II. On the 11th of May, 1858, Patrick Lydon was hanged in Galway for the murder of his wife. Lydon was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches in height; the diameter of the rope was 10 lines; his weight was 9½ stone, and the drop 11 feet. Hence we find
work done = 133 x 11 = 1463 foot-pounds.
In this case, “that portion of the anterior common ligament of the spine which passes from the body of the second to that of the third cervical vertebra was ruptured, so that the left halves of the bodies of the above-mentioned vertebrae were separated from each other by an interval of one-eighth of an inch, but there was no displacement.”
These criminals were executed with the same rope, and death in the second case was not preceded by violent muscular convulsions, as in the first case — a fact which is readily accounted for by the excess of shock in the proportion of 1463 to 1102.