Posts filed under 'Hanged'

1887: Josiah Terrill, “I ain’t guilty of this here charge”

1 comment September 2nd, 2013 Headsman

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):


Chapter 4

Josiah Terrill
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.

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1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat

Add comment September 1st, 2013 Headsman

[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.

-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

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.

“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)

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.

* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.

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1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

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

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).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

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.

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1765: Three Burglarious Johns

Add comment August 28th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1765, John Fagan, John Grimes and John Johnson alias Cochran were hanged in Burlington County, New Jersey in a rare triple execution.

The three Johns were convicted of home invasion robbery.


Wrong Three Johns.

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.

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1853: John Hurley, medicalized

Add comment August 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1853, John Hurley hanged at Galway.

He had bludgeoned a 16-year-old serving-girl to death to relieve her of seven and six her employers had entrusted her on a provisioning errand.

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 152 = 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.

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1874: Private Joseph Michaud, the first in Manitoba

2 comments August 26th, 2013 Headsman

The Canadian province of Manitoba logged its first judicial hanging on this date in 1874.

Private Joseph Michaud, an artillery gunner, earned the distinction with one of the classic criminal archetypes, the ill-advised bender. Having snuck out on the town — Winnipeg, in this case — a progressively more belligerent Michaud found himself by the wee hours slashing with his knife one of his fellow duty-derelicters.

That other soldier wasn’t the murder victim: it was, instead, a passerby who saw Michaud brandishing his weapon and attempted to intervene. The boozy artillerist chased that poor man down and left the Good Samaritan a bloodied corpse in the street, pocked with thirty or more knife wounds.

Once he sobered up, Michaud was as appalled as anyone. At his trial, his plea was “coupable dans mon coeur et je merite la morte.” (“Guilty in my heart and I deserve to die.”) In a similar vein, Canada’s temperance movement seized on the case of the remorseful young man driven to an act of madness by drink. “The miserable end of this young man Michaud ought to be a lesson to our young men to keep away form the temptation of strong drink.” (That quote and a longer summation of the trial are here.)

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1849: Rebecca Smith, to save her children from want

Add comment August 23rd, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1849, forgotten mass murderer Rebecca Smith was hanged before a large crowd outside Devizes Prison in Wiltshire, England. She’d been convicted of the murder of her one-month-old baby, Richard.

Smith was the fifteenth person executed in the UK that year, and she would be the last woman in British history to be put to death for the infanticide of her own child. (Not to be confused with infanticide in general.)

Lionel Rose, in his book Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939, described Rebecca Smith as “an impoverished depressive and the wife of a drunkard.” In many ways she fit the profile for perpetrators of infanticide then and now: most women who commit these acts are desperate, often young, often impoverished, often unmarried, unable to take care of their babies and not knowing where to turn.

In many jurisdictions today, such women are treated leniently. 19th-century judges and juries did the same and rarely convicted the defendants of murder, which at the time entailed an automatic death sentence; they would usually try to go for an outright acquittal or, at worst, a manslaughter verdict.

As Rose notes in his book, “Between 1849 and 1864 there had been only 39 convictions of mothers for the willful murder of their children, almost all of them under 1 year and all but 5 illegitimate. From 1849 the Home Secretary invariably reprieved mothers who killed their own infants under twelve months … Between 1849 and 1877 only two more women were to be executed for child murder.”

One had slaughtered her four-year-old son; another killed not only her own child but also the child of her lover’s former mistress, to get him out of having to pay child support.

Rebecca’s case was something else altogether, though.

Her behavior before little Richard’s death was suspicious: she claimed the infant was “wasting away” when he was in fact the picture of health, and she went around in her home village of Bratton asking where she could buy arsenic.

When Richard died suddenly a short time later, the police launched a homicide investigation. On autopsy his body was found to be riddled with poison.

He had clearly been murdered in cold blood, but in spite of this the jury recommended mercy.

However, after her conviction Rebecca confessed that she had poisoned not just Richard but seven more of the eleven children born to her. Seven! All of them except Richard were killed only a day or so after birth. Her statements were confirmed when the authorities exhumed the children’s bodies and autopsied them.

Katherine D. Watson, in Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, explains Rebecca’s motive:

Aged forty-three, ‘undernourished and in poor health, living in great poverty and almost illiterate’, she had borne eleven children during eighteen* years of marriage, but only one, the first-born, was still alive. [...] Her husband was an alcoholic who never earned much money and frittered away the £100 that her father left to her; although a seemingly pious woman, Smith felt that murder was a kinder fate than slow starvation. [...] Seen by her neighbors as inoffensive and industrious, she claimed that her only fear was that her surviving daughter would be neglected after her death.

Two of her non-murdered children also died of natural causes; only one daughter survived to adulthood.

A contemporary account described her demeanor as she awaited death:

[H]er conduct was most becoming. Mild and contented in her manner and deportment might be thought that she was totally incapable of the unnatural crime of which she was convicted. Free from guile or hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that others would take warning by her fate. At the same time she was extremely ignorant, and betrayed a want of any deep feeling.

The modern reader may be shocked that she was able to get away with it for so long, but it wasn’t necessarily all that unusual.

The infant mortality rate in 19th-century Britain was so high, particularly among the poor, and the methods for investigating murders and potential murders were so primitive, that a person could commit such crimes repeatedly with very little fear of being detected.

Rebecca Smith was certainly not the only mother of that time and place who killed several of her own children during infancy, and she was probably not the most prolific, either. The only thing that stands out about her is that she got caught.

In spite of what she did, when you look at her life, it’s difficult not to pity her. But as Watson explained, “A confession to eight murders made a reprieve impossible.”

* Some sources say she was married twenty-eight (not eighteen) years.

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1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”

What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.

He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.

Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.

Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,’” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”


Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.

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1897: Harvey DeBerry, raving like a madman

Add comment August 19th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1897, a 23-year-old black man named Harvey DeBerry was hanged for sexually assaulting his employer’s daughter.

His offense, this sexual assault, was a new one under the Tennessee statutes, different from the crimes of rape and attempted rape, and DeBerry was the first person in Shelby County to be convicted of it.

DeBerry was a live-in laborer on the Eigiman farm in Frayser Station, Tennessee, and his wife was the farm’s cook. Mr. and Mrs. Eigiman had three children aged seven, five and two. It was the oldest child, Elenora, that DeBerry assaulted on October 8, 1896.

At the time of the crime, Mr. Eigiman was in the hospital in Memphis recuperating from a fractured skull and a broken leg. Mrs. Eigiman went to see him that day, leaving her children in the care of the DeBerrys. She left Elenora in bed in her nightgown, because the little girl said she wasn’t feeling well.

When Mrs. Eigiman returned at the end of the day, Elenora was still in bed, crying and acting as if she was in pain. She refused to tell her mother what was wrong, and cried and moaned all night.

The next morning, her mother stripped the bed and found blood on the sheets. Mrs. Eigiman confronted her daughter, and Elenora said Harvey DeBerry had come into her room, lain on top of her and hurt her. That same day, a doctor was called to examine the victim. His findings, according to court documents, were as follows:

He found the child highly excited, nervous, and trembling; that the person of the child was swollen, and very tender to the touch; that the parts showed acute inflammation and swelling; that he found a purulent discharge, and a slight rupture of the hymen; that penetration had been partial, but not complete; that the acute inflammation, purulent discharge, and swelling indicated that the injury was recent. During the course of the examination the physician asked the child who hurt her, and she replied that ‘Harvey hurt her.’ The mother was not present when the child made this statement.

Harvey DeBerry fled when Mrs. Eigiman and Elenora confronted him with their accusations.

He turned up soon enough, though, living in Arkansas under the alias Frank Berry, and was extradited to Tennessee for trial. He was represented by a father-and-son team of black lawyers and offered two witnesses in his defense: a washerwoman who said there was no blood on Elenora’s clothing, and someone who said he and DeBerry were harvesting corn together at the time of the crime.

However, the prosecution was able to prove that DeBerry’s alibi witness was mistaken about the date, and the washerwoman had laundered Elenora’ clothing a full month before she was attacked.

Elenora testified about her experience at the trial, saying the reason she hadn’t immediately told her mother about the attack was that Harvey had threatened to kill her if she breathed a word about what he had done. The defense tried to convince the court that another man had abused the little girl, but Elenora denied this on the stand.

A jury acquitted DeBerry of two counts of rape, but convicted him of “assault and battery upon a female under ten years of age, with intent to unlawfully and carnally know her.” What exactly constituted “rape” when there was scant to no penetration was a grey area in Anglo jurisprudence, but with the sexual assault law it was six of one and a half-dozen of the other: both rape and sexual assault were capital offenses.

On the scaffold DeBerry was sobbing and appeared terrified.

A newspaper said later that his last words were “the ravings of a madman. There was no connection of coherency in what he said.”

When he stood on the trap and the sheriff pulled the lever, nothing happened. After an agonizing moment, a deputy stepped forward and pulled it a second time. This time the trap worked and DeBerry fell, cleanly breaking his neck. He was pronounced dead within twelve minutes.

As to whether he confessed before he died, the sheriff and the minister refused to say.


For a bit of period context, the same date that DeBerry hung lawfully saw the summary lynching of an unknown tramp in Manheim, Illinois, outside Chicago. That man attempted to outrage a farmer’s wife but was fought off by the “muscular German woman,” then led a desperate chase through woods and cornfields for half an hour until one of the pursuing posse finally plunked him with a gunshot.

The wounded assailant was searched for identity papers (none turned up), then instantly strung up on the nearest sturdy tree. (Source: The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 20, 1897)

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1929: James Horace Alderman, Prohibition rum-runner

Add comment August 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1929, James Horace Alderman, the “King of the Rum Runners” or the “Pirate of the Gulf Stream”, was hanged at a custom-built gallows a a Florida Coast Guard base.

Alderman grew up in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and therefore became at home on the sea — even taking Teddy Roosevelt out as a fishing guide at one point, according to Florida Pirates: From the Southern Gulf Coast to the Keys and Beyond.

But as he came into his own, his business on the high seas was smuggling, often Chinese immigrant workers trying to sneak into the U.S. from Cuba. It’s rumored that Alderman killed some of these people, too.

Either way, Prohibition made for a much more profitable racket hauling liquor from Caribbean manufacturers to the Everglades, where it could take a train ride and be distributed all the way up the Atlantic coast.

On August 27, 1927, a Coast Guard cutter stopped and boarded Alderman’s speedboat and seized fifty barrels of whiske. Even worse, Alderman shot two of the cutter’s boarders dead.

Alderman’s case might look pretty open and shut, but Floridians proved to be extremely resistant to hosting a federal execution. (The feds at this point generally administered executions in their own name, but at the execution sites of whatever state the malcreant happened to live with. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example, simply died in New York state’s iconic electric chair.

The final judicial decision on this strange question so far from the long-ago deliberations at Liberty Hall came down like this: Florida’s facilities could be barred to the federal government, and that they should carry out the execution on nearby federal property. The U.S. Coast Guard was forced to build a temporary gallows for Alderman inside its seaplane hangar and base no. 6. (Here’s Alderman’s detah warrant, if you’re into that sort of thing.) A short drop from the platform led to an agonizing 12-minute strangulation.

Because Florida itself had only a few years prior ditched hanging in favor of the electric chair, Alderman’s execution was the last judicial hanging in (but not by!) the state of Florida.

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