November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.
We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.
Richard James (South Carolina)
Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.
James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”
James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.
A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.
Henry Johnson (South Carolina)
Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”
Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)
While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)
John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.
And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.
Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.
Joseph Harris (Tennesee)
In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.
Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.
Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.
Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.
Sang Armor (Georgia)
Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25’s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.
Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.
“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”
Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.
Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.
The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.
On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.
This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.
As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.
With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.
Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.
These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.
Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.
After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”
(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)
For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”
The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.
Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordanput it.
But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,
Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.
* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.
** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.
† There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”
‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.
On November 19, 1720, Edward Hunt was hanged in Philadelphia. He was the only Pennsylvanian executed for treason prior to the American Revolution — that treason being not the betrayal of the state (in the sense we might think of it today), but counterfeiting.
In the bitterness of his scaffold speech, which disdains the customary acknowledge-my-guilt, pray-for-my-soul form of the genre to complain about his case, Hunt made plain that he was not reconciled to the justice men had rendered him.
The American Weekly Mercury of Thursday, November 24 published “this extraordinary Piece” only with a preface complaining that “it is evident, that the following Speech was intended to misrepresent the Administration and Justice of this Government, as well as to infuse both ill Principles and Practices into the Minds of the People.”
The Dying Speech of Edward Hunt, formerly taken in Rebellion at Preston, and transported a bound Servant to the Island of Antigua, before his Execution upon the 19th Instant, at Philadelphia, where he had been legally convicted of High Treason, and most justly condemn’d for his Counterfeiting Spanish Silver Coin, made current* by Act of Parliament within all his Majesties Colonies in America.
It may be expected, that I should say some thing now concerning my Life and Conversation, which i must with Sorrow own to God and the Word has not been according to the Precepts and Principles of the Church, in which I was bred and educated: But with a sincere repentance and hearty Sorrow I do lament all the Errors of my past Life, firmly believing in my Saviour Jesus Christ, in whose Merits and ever flowing Mercy I do only trust for Salvation and Pardon, who has promised Eternal Life on no other Terms to the most Righteous upon Earth.
As to the Crime that now I suffer for in particular, I must own it is an Offence against the Laws, which I hope God will pardon me since he knows that I did not do it with any Design to cheat or defraud any one, or to make a Practice of Coining; but being ignorant of the Breach of any Laws of God or Man, I thought I might cut those Impressions as innocently as any other, or the Stamps that the Gentlemen of this place imploy’d me about, to make Farthings.** I am an English Subject, and desired to have the Privilege of the Laws of England, but it was not granted in any Point, except in Condemning me.
I am the first unhappy Instance of this kind that ever suffered in the King’s Dominions, pray God it may be a Warning to all, not to offend wilfully in the same that I did through Ignorance: For if I had known it, I would not have taken all the World to have done it. God give me a patient Resignation to submit to his blessed Will, in whatsoever he please.
I do heartily ask Forgiveness of all that I have offended in any manner of way, and do sincerely forgive all that have injured or offended me; particularly Mr. John Moore and Morris Birchfield, and the Evidence that swore against me in that Tryal. I do solemnly declare, That I know not any thing, or have been guilty of any one thing laid to my Charge in that Matter, or any of the other things laid to my Charge, by John Butler, either in England or Ireland.
I did petition the Honourable Governor for a Reprieve, until the King’s Pleasure was known concerning me, being I could not be tried by the Laws of England in all Points, as a Church of England Man ought to be: But it was a Privilege too great for me to obtain. Pray God to forgive them all, and every one that has a hand in taking away my Life any manner of way, and that my Blood be not required at their Hands, for they know not what they do. I am on Earth judged and condemned to die for the Breach of a Law of Man that was not duly published, which for that Reason I transgress’d it ignorantly, though the first that suffers for the Transgression of unknown Laws, or that was sentenced according to the Laws of England, without the Privilege of a Subject, which I desired of the Judge, which I know was not qualified by the same Laws to try me.
I do not know what Advantage there can be to any in my Death, and that I could not appeal to my King, neither before nor after my Tryal. I do not speak this because I am not in Charity with all the World, I do, from the Bottom of my Heart, forgive all in Obedience to my Saviour’s Command and Example, who suffered more for me, being innocent, and had not only done no Harm, but Good, and pray’d even for is cruel Persecutors and Murderers, and promised, That those that follow his Examples in this World by patiently enduring the Cross, shall reign with him to all Eternity: To Him therefore I commit all, an my poor Wife, beseeching him to help her, and be her Support and Comfort, and preserve her poor Soul free from the Polutions [sic] of the World, that through his precious Merits we may meet where we shall be both happy to all Eternity, in the merciful Arms of our dear Lord and Saviour Jesus, who I do beseech to receive my poor Soul.
* Early colonial American commerce was severely hampered by a shortage of English/British currency. As a result, coins minted in Spain’s lucrative southern territories served as the colonies’ primary currency in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly the iconic eight-real silver “pieces of eight”.
This is the reason why the currency of the present-day U.S. isn’t an “American pound sterling” but the almighty dollar: Dutch colonists had brought a coin called the leeuwendaalder to their former New Amsterdam (New York) province, the name deriving from the German thaler. As the pieces of eight corresponded to the thaler/daalder, it inherited the same name. Indeed, the “Spanish Dollar” remained legal tender in the post-colonial United States until 1857.
This is also the reason for reckoning of the eight constituent bits that comprised the dollar, and hence of the American colloquialism “two bits” to denote $0.25 … and, later, the adjective “two-bit” to man something cheap, mean, or small-time.
** They may have been Spain’s coins, but it’s wildly implausible that any Englishman could think he could counterfeit “innocently.”
JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 28. The Rand Daily Mail, in an article dealing with the economic situation of the Union, gives striking figures illustrating the steady advance of the gold industry on the march towards prosperity.
Profits for the July-September quarter show an increase of £1,136,000 over the previous quarter. This has been accomplihed not only by lowering wages, but by all-round improvement in efficiency per unit, mining costs having fallen from 25s. 8d. in 1921 to 20s. 5d. in September, 1922 …
[T]he Rand Daily Mail says that these facts “represent unmistakable omens of coming prosperity which should steel the downhearted farmer to greater effort and encourage the suffering industrialist throughout the Union, and transform the pessimism of the merchant into healthy confident and hope.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1922)
THREE RAND EXECUTIONS.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 17. The bitterest feeling prevails among the workers over the refusal to reprieve the three men, Long, Hull, and Lewis, who were condemned to death for murder in connexion with the Rand revolt, and were executed at Pretoria to-day.
Appeals for mercy poured in till almost the last moment, and an open-air mass meeting was held, in which prominent Communists took part. At this meeting angry and threatening speeches were made; the names of General Smuts and Sir Lionel Phillips were boohed, and the crowd attempted to break into the Town Hall, severely injured a detective, and was finally dispersed by armed police. The public generally approves the Government’s firmness. The condemned men sang the Red Flag on the scaffold. (London Times, Nov. 18, 1922)
“Come dungeons dark or gallows grim the sun will be our parting hymn.”
FUNERAL OF RAND MURDERERS.
COMMUNIST APPEAL TO CHILDREN.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19. Remarkable scenes recalling the funeral of the victims of the great strike of 1913 were witnessed at the burial of the remains of Long, Lewis, and Hull, who were executed on Friday. The coffins, in separate hearses, were followed by thousands of workers, with banners and regalia, representing every trade union. “The Red Flag” was sung at the graveside and addresses were delivered, in which members of Parliament, of the Provincial Council, and Town Councils participated.
The latest development of Communist propaganda in Johannesburg is the distribution broadcast among children and students as they are leaving their schools and colleges of a pamphlet denouncing as “legalized murder and a blot on history” the execution of the men convicted of murder at special treason courts. (London Times, Nov. 20, 1922)
1688 finds her with a daughter, desperately poor, as housekeepers in Boston to one John Goodwin and his family.
After one of Goodwin’s daughters accused the Glovers of stealing some linen, the daughter got cussed out and — per Cotton Mather’s credulous account of the washerwoman’s devilry — “visited with strange Fits, beyond those that attend an Epilepsy or a Catalepsy, or those that they call The Diseases of Astonishment.” In fact, four Goodwin children began suffering these symptoms, and would do so for weeks on end, only abating enough for meals and a good night’s sleep. (They would finally be cured, weeks after their supernatural tormenter’s hanging, by having to fast for a couple of days.)
The family doctor diagnosed “an hellish Witchcraft.” Mather has an extensive description of their thrashings, but his contemporary, Boston merchant Robert Calef, charged in his anti-Mather tract More Wonders of the Invisible World that Mather himself did not shy from “taking home one of the children, and managing such intrigues with that child, and printing such an account of the whole … as conduced much to the kindling of those flames, that in sir William‘s time threatened the destruction of this country.”
The printed account was published with a preface by Mr. Baxter, who says, ‘the evidence is so convincing, that he must be a very obdurate Sadducee who will not believe.’ It obtained credit sufficient, together with other preparatives, to dispose the whole country to be easily imposed upon by the more extensive and more tragical scene, which was presently after acted at Salem … these books were in New-England, and the conformity between the behavior of Goodwin’s children and most of the supposed bewitched at Salem, and the behavior of those in England, is so exact, as to leave no room to doubt the stories had been read by the New England persons themselves, or had been told to them by others who had read them. Indeed, this conformity, instead of giving suspicion, was urged in confirmation of the truth of both.
Years later, when the public turned against Mather’s appalling leading role in the Salem Witch Trials, one of the Goodwin children was among the parishioners whom Mather detailed to come to his defense. “[Mather] never gave me the least advice, neither face to face nor by way of epistles, neither directly nor indirectly,” insisted Nathaniel Goodwin, later to become the executor of his estate. “[H]e never advised me to anything concerning the law, or trial of the accused person.”**
Eventually persuaded by the children’s mysterious or staged illnesses, the town magistrates hauled Goody Glover in for questioning and set upon her poor command of the King’s English. Glover was a native speaker of Gaelic; she had lived in Boston for only a few years, and it’s likely that whatever degree of English she picked up in her indenture in Barbados was heavily creolized by that island’s enormous mid-17th century influx of African slaves for the sugar plantations.
Whatever she said sounded like it came straight from perdition to the ears of Cotton Mather.
she being sent for by the Justices, gave such a wretched Account of her self, that they saw cause to commit her unto the Gaolers Custody. Goodwin had no proof that could have done her any Hurt; but the Hag had not power to deny her interest in the Enchantment of the Children; and I when she was asked, Whether she believed there was a God? her Answer was too blasphemous and horrible for any Pen of mine to mention. An Experiment was made, Whether she could recite the Lords Prayer; and it was found, that tho clause after clause was most carefully repeated unto her, yet when she said it after them that prompted her, she could not Possibly avoid making Nonsense of it, with some ridiculous Depravations. …
It was not long before the Witch thus in the Trap, was brought upon her Tryal; at which, thro’ the Efficacy of a Charm, I suppose, used upon her, by one or some of her Cruel the Court could receive Answers from her in one but the Irish, which was her Native Language; altho she under-stood the English very well, and had accustomed her whole Family to none but that Language in her former Conversation; and therefore the Communication between the Bench and the Bar,’ was now cheefly convey’d by two honest and faithful men that were interpreters.
Just imagine how apoplectic this guy would be if he ever heard “para Espanol o prima dos.”
One can readily picture confusion and malice multiplying one upon the other as it passes not only between two different tongues but also between two different cosmologies. We don’t know very much about Ann Glover; even her name is a slave name. But she was Catholic, and so had a religious world of saints and symbols that her persecutors could readily equate with demons. (Querying her in the condemned cell at one point, Mather is told that “saints” forbid her cooperating with his Protestant exhortations, but he understands it as “spirits” — apparently the Gaelic word is one and the same — and he presses her for the identities of these infernal agents.) She probably did not remotely share her prim persecutors’ regard for temperance and submission. She was of course poor and uneducated, ready prey for the entrapment of a well-schooled prig who could scarcely conceive the lives she had already led in Ireland and Barbados. If one likes, one might take her as the luckless victim of a conservative clergy’s backlash against the slow fade of its authority.
Glover’s broken speech and wrong religion surely made it easy to “other” her. Even so, at least in Mather’s construction, Goodwife Glover’s condemnation reads as if it proceeded with at least the partial participation of the accused.
Several rag dolls were recovered from Glover’s home, and Mather says that Glover agreed that these were “her way to torment the Objects of her malice … by wetting of her Finger with her Spittle, and streaking of those little Images.” Even if this matter is just as her foe depicts it, Glover wouldn’t exactly by the only person in history to be irritated by her employer, nor to satisfy her vengeance on some fetish of an untouchable enemy.
Glover might herself have believed in the folk magic whose practice was only slowly ebbing away at this time; Mather even says that Glover obligingly healed a boy whom she had bewitched when his mother testified at her trial.
Or she might have defiantly embraced the sorcery accusations against her as a last rebuke to the Puritans who had torn her from hearth and home all those years before and now despised her as an idolatrous papist. Her contemporary defender Robert Calef just thought she was a bit out of her gourd; “the generality of her answers were nonsense, and her behaviour like that of one distracted,” giving “crazy answers to some ensaring questions.” The court actually explored this possibility as well by empaneling a group of medical men to explore Glover’s competency. They found her compos mentis.
It’s too bad that we don’t have Goodwife Glover’s own account of herself. Instead we read her through axe-grinding interlocutors.
Mather wearied his victim with demands to convert, along with an interpreter since “she entertained me [in her cell] with nothing but Irish.” (He didn’t mean whiskey.) It was only “against her will” that Mather prayed with her — or maybe more like “at her” — although he also claimed to have extracted an admission that other witches were operating who would continue to afflict the Goodwin children.
There’s a precious alleged† first-person account of her execution:
There was a great concourse of people to see if the Papist would relent … Her one cat was there, fearsome to see. They would to destroy the cat, but Mr. Calef would not [permit the cat to be killed]. Before her execution she was bold and impudent, making to forgive her accusers and those who put her off … She predicted that her death would not relieve the children, saying it was not she afflicted them.
** This is not the only link between those Massachusetts witch-hunts; Rebecca Nurse, one of the women hanged at Salem, might have visited Ann Glover in jail.
† So far as I have been able to determine this widely-reproduced quote sources entirely to a 1905 Journal of the American Irish Historical Society piece. This was itself reproduced from a strongly partisan article titled “A Forgotten Heroine” and published in a devotional Catholic magazine, The Ave Maria. It was written by Harold Dijon, an instructor at a Baltimore Catholic school, without primary footnotes — only a general citation that it has “been gleaned from Cotton Mather, Upham, Drake, Moore, Owens, Calef, Cartrie, and papers of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” I have not been able to locate the document Dijon quotes here.
On this date in 1888, after a hearty breakfast of beefsteak, eggs, sweet potatoes and coffee, William Showers became the eighth man judicially hanged in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
He had been condemned for the murder of his grandson, William “Willie” Kahler. An account of his trial and death, assembled by the Lebanon County Historical Society, describes the condemned man as he appeared on the day of his execution: “The aged Bill Showers [he was sixty-two] looked like what he was, a pathetic soul. He was only five feet two inches in height and weighed less than one hundred twenty-five pounds.”
Showers had been dealt a hard hand in life, and he didn’t have a good reputation among his neighbors in the village of Annville. Much to the shame of the family, his only daughter Sara had borne six children out of wedlock. Sara died young in 1886, and her father was left in charge of two of her children: six-year-old Willie Kahler and his brother, Samuel “Sammy” Speraw, age four. (What happened to the other four children has not been recorded.)
Bill Showers was a widower by then. For about six months, with the help of his son and his daughter-in-law, Showers did the best he could to provide a home for his grandsons.
But in April 1887, Showers’s son and his wife stopped helping him care for Willie and Sammy. Bill had never wanted the boys in the first place, and he couldn’t afford to feed them on his own.
For about a month the three of them lived alone and Bill tried to get someone to take the children off his hands. He tried a few different foster homes, but he couldn’t afford to pay the foster parents for the boys’ keep. He took them to an orphanage, but they were refused admission. The county almshouse rejected them also.
Bitter and desperate, Bill complained to a friend, “If no one will take them, I have one place to put them. I won’t be a damned fool and raise other people’s children.”
In mid-May, however, Showers’s normally sulky and reclusive attitude suddenly changed and he went to the neighbors and cheerfully announced that he had finally found another home for the children. Two brothers in Schuylkill County were willing to adopt them and take them to Texas to start a new life, and they would be out of Bill’s hair forever. Showers asked his daughter-in-law to mend the boys’ clothing in preparation for their journey.
Then, on May 17, he borrowed the local minister’s buggy and set off over the mountains to Sammy and Willie’s new adoptive home. A few of the neighbors noticed Showers riding out of town that morning. They also noticed that he was alone.
By May 30, the good citizens of Annville were suspicious enough to go to the local constable, Joseph Fegan. When Fegan questioned Showers as to the whereabouts of his grandchildren, Bill told them a most extraordinary story: on the way to Schuykill County, he said, he’d encountered two black men and asked them for directions.
He then stopped to water his horses, letting the children out of the buggy as he did so. When he returned to the wagon, Willie and Sammy were gone. He believed they’d been abducted by the two black men. But he never reported their disappearances, he said, because he was “too upset.”
No one believed this wild story, and the people of Annville organized search parties to look for the two children, whom they were sure had been murdered. They found their tiny, nearly naked bodies that very same day, in a ditch only about 70 yards from Showers’s house. They had both been beaten and strangled to death.
Showers was arrested, charged with murder and lodged in the county jail. Which was just as well for him, because his neighbors were inclined to lynch him. His son hired a very able local attorney, Frank Seltzer, to defend him. Seltzer selected Frank Lanz, a former state senator, as co-counsel.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the defendant only with the murder of Willie. The idea was that if they lost that case, they could go forward and try Showers for the murder of Sammy.
The trial date was in mid-June, and the first thing Showers’s attorneys did was move that it be delayed. As the Lebanon County Historial Society puts it:
Seltzer…had a different view of the situation. He rose and objected to the call of the case with a voice that could be heard in the county jail one-half block away. Promptly and resignedly, his tone of voice changed. As if explaining a baptismal font to a heathen, he told the judges that he and Senator Lantz had been retained for less than a week. Their request for a continuance was not made :in the spirit of vexatious delay” but rather for lack of time to prepare the case for trial and, of prime importance, the inability to have a fair trial in the county at the time in light of the prevailing rumors. Adverse pretrial publicity, pleaded Seltzer, rendered a fair trial impossible at this time.
[The prosecutor] Ehrgood replied to Seltzer that he had been given prompt notice he was going to press for immediate trial and Seltzer would have ample time to prepare, since it was only Monday and he would not be ready for trial until the following Thursday. This was a concession which Seltzer and Lantz hardly appreciated.
The judge agreed with the defense, and set a new trial date for September. This would give time for his lawyers to prepare, and maybe for the rumor mill to stop spinning. These were some of the stories floating around:
Seltzer murdered his wife in 1886.
He also killed his daughter Sara, Willie and Sammy’s mother.
He was in love with a local seamstress, Elizabeth Sargent, and killed his family members to get them out of the way so he could marry her.
The press didn’t help matters.
Headlines in the local papers included shockers like “Annville the Scene of a Murder Most Foul!” and “William Showers Dyes His Hands with His Grandchildren’s Blood!”
During the summer of 1887, Showers’s attorney, Seltzer, fell ill and was confined to bed, unable to assist with the defense. It seemed unlikely that the trial would really take place in September. Perhaps Showers couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, for on September 23 he summoned his sons Stephen and William Jr. to the jail, along with the lawyer Luther F. Houck.
Showers made an oral confession to all of them, speaking in his native German, and Houck wrote it down and translated it into English.
The substance of Showers’s confession was that Elizabeth Sargent had agreed to marry him on the condition that he got rid of the boys, and they had agreed to kill them. Elizabeth, he said, helped him strangle Willie and Sammy and dump their bodies in a pre-dug grave.
In court later that day, Showers pleaded guilty to both murders, and his confession was read out for everyone to hear. Elizabeth Sargent was in the audience and she leaped up and shouted, “That’s a lie!” The judge had her removed from the courtroom. The next day she and her parents took a train out of town. Because Showers had implicated her and the police weren’t sure as to whether she was involved in the children’s deaths, the court issued a bench warrant for her arrest.
The townspeople, however, didn’t believe Showers’s second story any more than they had his first one. They were convinced of Elizabeth’s innocence. She subsequently reappeared and presented an alibi, proving she had not been with Showers on the dates he specified in his statement.
When he heard the news about his client, Selzer rose from his sickbed and rushed to court to try to undo the damage. He begged the judge not to accept the guilty plea. In private, Showers told his attorney the confession was completely untrue and he made up the story because he’d been sick and weak, and people who visited him in jail told him he would be hanged if he didn’t own up to what he did.
Selzer’s argument persuaded the judge: Showers’s guilty plea was withdrawn. He finally went to trial on December 15, 1887.
He testified on his own behalf and gave yet another bizarre story, this time implicating a local man named George Matterness and his dead daughter Sara’s husband, a man named Huffnagle. He said Matterness and Hufnagle, along with two other men in blackface, had visited Showers’s home on the night of May 17 and lead Willie and Sammy out of the house. Matterness, Showers said, had later told him the children were buried in the ditch. Showers had told no one about this before because Hufnagle had repeatedly threatened his life.
The prosecution immediately called George Matterness as a rebuttal witness. Matterness, a teacher, freely admitted he knew Showers slightly, but said the whole story was a lie and he was baffled as to why the old man would have implicated him.
Given the circumstances, it’s surprising the jury actually deliberated till midnight and then on to 8:00 a.m. the next morning before pronouncing Showers guilty.
He told Seltzer, “I’m glad they didn’t find me innocent so they can’t go ahead and try me on the indictment for the murder of Sammy.” He expressed hope that he would prevail on appeal, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied him and the governor quickly issued a death warrant.
Three hundred people were allowed into the prison courtyard to witness the execution. Thousands more clogged the streets around the jail into a “solid mass of morbid minded humanity bent on seeing Bill Showers tripped into endless time.”
The morbid mass got its wish. The small, slight man fell only three feet, and his neck was not broken. He strangled slowly for seventeen minutes.
As Showers’s sons all refused to take custody of the body, he was buried on the grounds of the county almshouse. This was the same institution that had refused to accept his grandsons, an act that would have saved their lives.
On this date in 2010, Farid Baghlani was hanged in Ahvaz for a 2004-2008 serial murder spree that claimed the lives of six women.
At trial, Baghlani openly attributed his crimes to his hatred for women, probably not a defense calculated to maximize his prospects of acquittal. Those who lost loved ones to Baghlani returned the sentiment, and celebrated his execution by handing out sweets.
On this date in 1806, the Neapolitan partisan Michele Pezza was hanged as a bandit.
Better known by his infernal nickname “Fra Diavolo” — “Brother Devil” — Pezza (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was forced into the army of the Kingdom of Naples as punishment for manslaughter in 1797, just in time to experience its thrashing at the hands of the French Republicans rolling down the peninsula.
By 1799, Naples was no longer a kingdom at all, but a French-modeled and -backed republic, one of several in Italy.
Populist, Catholic resistance to these impositions commenced almost immediately. Fra Diavolo was destined to become the enduring legend of this sanfedismo movement.
Pezza’s band, which eventually numbered as much as 4,000, stalked the roads around Rome and Naples, terrorizing French soldiers and Republicans. They had a reputation for cruelty.
Francis Maceroni, a writer and an aide (and eventual biographer) for Napoleonic marshal Murat, charges that Fra Diavolo was merely “a well known assassin and highwayman [who] could not but be infamous, in any service. Brief, he was put upon his trial, — found guilty of as many horrid felonies as would fill a dozen volumes like that of ‘Rookwood,’ and hanged upon a gibbet of extraordinary height, at the Ponte della Maddalena at Naples.” The author is disgusted that the name Fra Diavolo “has not only been immortalized by his atrocious crimes, but by the appliances of fine music and operatic representation” for the outlaw “was a most unmitigated mass of evil, without one redeeming point.”
Actually, his effectiveness with irregulars was a very significant redeeming point in a dirty-war environment.
After Naples’ Parthenopean Republic was deposed by France’s foes, Pezza was retired with an aristocratic title, a substantial pension, and a trophy bride: just the Bourbons’ way to say thanks.
But he was recalled to the field when the French re-invaded Naples in 1806, briefly installing Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new Neapolitan king, and again set to raiding with a mass of guerrillas. This time the French hunted him to ground, defeating his irregulars in an October 1806 engagement and capturing Fra Diavolo himself days later.
Pezza hanged as a brigand in Naples, but the city’s exiled royalty funded a funeral mass for their lost commander in the cathedral of Palermo.
Maceroni wasn’t kidding about the “fine music and operative representation,” by the way. Daniel Auber composed a hit 1830 debut, Fra Diavolo.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”