Posts filed under 'Hanged'

1938: George Brain, Wimbledon murderer

Add comment November 1st, 2014 Headsman

The headline story from Wimbledon in July of 1938 ought to have been the conquet of its renowned tennis championship by Don Budge. The American great didn’t drop a set in seven rounds romping to a men’s title that left him on the cusp of sweeping the Grand Slam tourneys that year. Weeks later, Budge did indeed complete the Slam by taking the U.S. Open — the first player to accomplish that feat in a single year.

But on the morning of July 14, two weeks after Budge raised the silverware, Somerset Road opposite Centre Court yielded up to a passing motorist the body of a 30-year-old woman.

The badly mangled body suggested a hit-and-run, but examination soon revealed that Rose Muriel Atkins had come to her grievous end via the trauma of a small, sharp instrument and not a large, blunt one: the tire marks over Irish Rose’s legs merely a post-mortem red herring.

By no coincidence, a local driver that morning skipped his shift and disappeared, leaving his van in a buddy’s garage. Once police caught wind of this circumstance and found in the van extensive bloodstains that the fugitive deliveryman had unsuccessfully scrubbed, the nationwide manhunt for George Brain was on.

Brain managed to stay on the lam for more than a week, which caused him to miss his intended July 21 wedding date, but this futile flight was really the strongest defense he could offer.

Irish Rose was a well-known prostitute and Brain a well-known satyr; once arrested, he acknowledged having picked her up in the company van with a professional assignation in mind. At that point, he was already in the soup with his employer for stealing 37 quid to squander on hedonism — money he was past due to return to them. (The firm’s reporting him for theft when he skipped work is what brought his creepy van right to police attention.)

Per Brain, the courtesan tried to extract more money from him by threatening to tattle on the naughty use of his work vehicle, at which point “I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ I struck her with my hand. She started screaming. Then everything seemed to go blank and I hit her with a starting handle which I keep in the van. When I came to there was her body lying in the van.” (London Times, September 20, 1938)

The old “blacked out during this person’s inexplicable murder” defense. Too bad for that story that he actually killed her with a knife; the judge incredulously instructed the jury that “one who takes a chisel or a knife, such as has been produced — a cobbler’s knife — and tears up the throat of a woman, cannot be heard to say that he never expected her to die and never intended to kill her.” Though Brain meted out the wounds with (per the coroner’s characterization) “savage determination” he had still not gone so ravingly feral that he couldn’t be arsed to stage the hit and run or rummage the moll’s purse for her last four shillings. The jury needed only 15 minutes to convict.

Brain’s convivial reputation around Wimbledon earned him 16,500 subscribers to a petition to save his neck despite what he’d done to Atkins’s, but the Home Secretary turned him down flat. Brain was executed at Wandsworth Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint.

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1651: Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishop of Emly

Add comment October 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, three days after the Irish city Limerick surrendered to a withering five-month Parliamentarian siege, the victors hanged Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien on Gallows Green.

Limerick was the southern stronghold of the Catholic and anti-Parliamentarian Confederate Ireland.

It was this polity, which allied itself to English Royalists, that Cromwell assailed in his bloody conquest of Ireland.

Though Cromwell lives forever as an oath in Irish memory, the man himself left Ireland in 1650 to smash an awkward Royalist alliance with Scottish Presbyterians.

That left the Irish campaign in the hands of Cromwell’s capable fellow-general (and by this time, son-in-law) Henry Ireton, and it was Ireton who laid Limerick under a siege at an estimated cost of 5,000 civilians succumbed to starvation and plague.

The Catholic Bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien, had been trapped in the mixed English-Irish city and encouraged continued resistance to the siege. Ireton advanced him to the very front of the queue for punishment, and had him put to death directly after the city’s capture.

A “Last Speech and Prayer” of the martyr was published in London within a few days, together with a “humble petition” of then-imprisoned (and later executed) pro-Stuart highwayman James Hind.

Good people,

This is a very uncomfortable place, for me to deliver my self unto you; but I beseech you pardon my failings, and the rather, by reason of the sad occasion that hath brought me hither: Indeed, I have been long in my race, and how I have looked unto Jesus the Authour and finisher of my faith, is best known to him; I am now come to the end of my race, which I find to be a death of shame, but the shame must be despised, or there is no coming to the right hand of God; Jesus despised the shame for me upon the Crosse, and God forbid but I should despise the shame for him upon the Gallowes; I am going apace, as you see, towards the Red Sea, and my feet are upon the very brinks of it, an Argument I hope that God is brining me to the Land of promise, for that was the way by which of old he led his people.

But before they came to the Sea, he instituted a passe over for them, a Lamb it was, but it was to be eaten with very sowr herbs, as in the 12. of Exodus. I shall obey and labour to digest the sowr herbs, as well as the Lamb, and I shall remember, that it is the Lord’s passe-over, I shall not think of the herbs, nor be angry with the hands that gathered them, but look up only to him who instituted the one, and governeth the other: For men can have no more power over me, than that which is given them from above; and although I am denyed mercy here on earth, yet I doubt not but to receive it in heaven. I am not in love with this passage through the Red Sea, for I have the weakness and infirmity of flesh and blood in me, and I have prayed as my Saviour taught me, and exampled me; ut transiret calix ista, That this cup might passe away from me; but since it is not, that my will may, his will be done; and I shall most willingly drink of it as deep as he pleases, and enter into this Sea, I and I passe through it, in the way that he shall be pleased to leade me. And yet (good people) it would be remembrad [sic], That when the Servants of God, old Israel, were in this boystrous Sea, and Aaron with them, the Egyptians which persecuted them, and did in a manner drive them into that Sea, were drowned in the same waters while they were in pursuit of them: I know my God whom I serve, is as able to deliver me from this Sea of blood, as he was to deliver the 3 Children from the furnace. Dan. 3. And I most humbly thank my Saviour for it. My resolution is now, as theirs was then; their Resolution was, they would not change their principles, nor worship the Image which the King had set up; nor shall I the imaginations which the people are setting up; neither will I forsake the Temple and Truth of God, to follow the bleating of Jeroboams Calves in Dan and in Bethel.

And I pray God blesse all this people, and open their eyes, that they may see the right way, for if it fall out that the blind lead the blind, doubtless they will fall both into the ditch: For my self I am (and I acknowledge it in all humility), a most grievous sinner, and therefore I cannot doubt but that God hath mercy in store for me a poor penitent, as well as for other sinners; I have upon this sad occasion ransack’d every corner of my heart, & yet I thank God, I have not found any of my sins that are there, any sins now deserving death by any known Law. And I thank God, though the wait [weight] of the sentence lie very hard upon me, yet I am as quiet within, (I thank Christ for it) as I ever was in my life; I shall hasten to go out of this miserable life, for I am not willing to be tedious; and I beseech you, as many as are within hearing, observe me, I was born and baptized in the bosome of the Church of Rome (the ancient and true Church) and in that Profession I have ever since lived, and in the same I now die. As touching my engagement in arms, I did it in two respects. First, for the preservation of my principles and Tenents. And secondly, for the establishing of the King, and the rest of the Royal issue in their just Rights and Priviledges. I will not inlarge my self any further, I have done, I forgive all the world, all and every of these bitter Enemies, or others whatsoever they have been, which have any wayes prosecuted me in this kind; I humbly desire to be forgiven first of God, and then of every man, whether I have offended him or no; if he do but conceive that I have: Lord do thou forgive me, and I beg forgiveness of him, and so I heartily desire you to joyn with me in prayer.

From Hugh Fennin’s “The Last Speech and Prayer of Blessed Terence Albert O’Brien, Bishopp of Emly, 1651,” in Collectanea Hibernica, No. 38 (1996).

Any Limerick Catholics who didn’t share the prelate’s forgiving attitude might have taken some spiteful comfort that the strain of commanding the siege caused Ireton to fall ill with fever. He died on November 26 — barely outliving the bishop whom he had hanged.* After the Stuarts regained the English throne, Ireton was exhumed and posthumously executed alongside the body of Oliver Cromwell.

* Ireton’s death indirectly spared the royalist commander of Limerick’s defeated garrison from an execution his conqueror had intended for him: Ireton’s successor instead sent him to the Tower of London, and he was eventually released to Spanish custody.

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

1 comment October 29th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2014: Reyhaneh Jabbari

3 comments October 25th, 2014 Headsman

At dawn today in Tehran’s Shahr-e Ray prison, Iran hanged Reyhaneh Jabbari despite a worldwide campaign to save her life.

Jabbari, 19 years old when her life went awry in September 2007, was a designer in the capital convicted of stabbing to death Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi — a former Ministry of Intelligence employee whom Jabbari said had attempted to rape her.

According to Jabbari, Sarbandi contracted her to redecorate his office. On the agreed day, Sarbandi and another man picked her up in their car and drove her to an unfamiliar location, stopping en route at a pharmacy to pick up some unknown articles later shown in court to be condoms and a sedative.

The room Sarbandi escorted her to looked filthy and uninhabited. When a suspicious Jabbari refused to close the door or doff her shawl for her “client”, Sarbandi grappled with her.

The young woman managed to get her hands on a knife,* she said, and stick it in his back, then fled the building back to the city. She was arrested late that night at her home. According to Jabbari, Sarbandi was still quite alive as she left, and the last thing she saw at the scene was his never-identified companion — who had stayed in the car initially — bursting into the room to fight with Sarbandi himself for some reason she could not comprehend.

Jabbari was condemned in 2009 and even as her sentence was re-confirmed in the ensuing years by court after court, it became an international cause celebre — executing a woman for stopping her would-be rapist. Hundreds of thousands of sympathizers tweeted, Facebooked and signed petitions; so small as such outcry can seem against an implacable state, they did at least give the impression of factoring into a last-minute reprieve Jabbari received ahead of her previous hanging-date four weeks ago. Iranian celebrities too joined in the reprieve campaign along with usual suspects like Amnesty International.

Unfortunately, Jabbari’s accusing her victim of sexual assault did not position her very well for obtaining a reprieve from Sarbandi’s family — which has the power under Iranian law to pardon offenders, right up to and even during the hanging. Sarbandi’s eldest son accused her of lying and of hiding the identity of the second man, the one whom Jabbari suggested might have been the true murderer.

“Only when her true intentions are exposed and she tells the truth about her accomplice and what really went down will we be prepared to grant mercy,” Jalal Sarbandi insisted.

Today, her lips are sealed.

I don’t want you to wear black clothing for me. Do your best to forget my difficult days. Give me to the wind to take away.

-From a last will Jabbari left as voice mail for her mother

* This was Jabbari’s own knife, one she had purchased two days before the incident.

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1801: Periya and Chinna Marudhu

Add comment October 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, the brothers Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu were hanged from the highest bastion of the fort of Tirupattur by the British — penalty for declaring the kingdom of Sviganga free from the British Empire.

The British East India Company had in the late 18th century established the foundation for the eventual Company Raj controlling India.

Sviganga was a small state only a few decades independent before the Company gobbled it up in 1790. But it proved more proud in its resistance than the Anglos might have expected. The widowed queen Velu Nachiyar put up a furious fight against the British in the 1780s, noted for its pioneering use of the suicide bomber: a Dalit woman who turned herself into a ghee torch and plunged into an enemy armory with explosive effect.

Velu Nachiyar died about 1790, leaving her patrimony to the administration of the Marudhu brothers. (The name is also rendered Marudu or Maruthu.)

The British policy was to rule India indirectly via arrangements with just such local elites. The pre-existing South India administrative class of Palaiyakkarars, better known to the British by the Anglicization “Polygars”, for instance, were simply bought off and put to tax collecting on behalf of the East India Company instead of domestic sovereigns.

These subcontinental subalterns did not prove to be quite as eager for the British yoke as the new hegemon might have hoped. They mounted a sequence of rebellions from 1799 to 1805 in a bid to claw back their autonomy. The British suppressed these risings only with considerable difficulty; an unnamed officer of the 73rd, in a letter published by the London Times on Jan. 7, 1802, paid the tribute of a colonist to his foes: “the Polygars are a race of people who inhabit the jungles and hill parts of India; they are braver than the generality of Indians, and cannot be said ever to have been conquered.”

The Marudhus joined this rebellion, allied with the Polygar Oomaithurai and leading a force pegged at upwards of 2,000. Finally besieged at Kalayar Kovil, the brothers found their fortress reduced and plundered by the British, and themselves delivered into enemy hands for exemplary justice. (Other captives, like Oomaithurai, were hauled further afield for punishment; Oomaithurai was executed on November 16 of the same year at Panchalankurichi.)

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1947: Gyorgy Donath, Hungarian anti-communist

Add comment October 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Hungarian politician Gyorgy Donath was executed for treason as the Hungarian state was came into the hands of the Communists.


Gyorgy Donath awaits hanging in the courtyard of a Budapest prison on October 23, 1947. (Source)

Donath (Hungarian Wikipedia link) stood among the ranks of Eastern European politicians purged by Soviet-directed Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain in the first years of the Cold War — years when Stalin still called the shots for the Communist bloc.

Donath had been a wartime parliamentarian under the banner of Bela Imredy‘s right-wing Party of Hungarian Life.

Had Hungary’s postwar direction been determined by orderly ballot-boxing rather than great power machinations, Donath would have had a voice in it — for it was a conservative party, the Independent Smallholders Party, who won a big hold on government with 57% of the votes in the 1945 elections.

Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.

Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.

1947 was the knife’s edge.

From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.

He was hanged on October 23 — just eight weeks after a heavily rigged 1947 election put Hungary formally into the Communist camp.

Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.

* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.

** In neighboring Romania and Bulgaria, similar tragedies were unfolding.

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1858: Owen McQueeney, Green Tent Murderer

4 comments October 20th, 2014 Headsman

Murderer Owen McQueen(e)y was hanged on this date in 1858 at Gallows Flat down the road from Old Geelong Gaol.

McQueeney, a wandering Irish robber with one distinctively sightless eye, committed something called the “Green Tent Murder” which consisted of the slaying of the pretty proprietress of a structure that went by that name.

The Green Tent was a grocery and tavern serving Australia’s ample population of itinerant gold-hunters in the environs of Meredith, Victoria — specifically the environs of present-day Green Tent Road.

Fresh off a jail term for horse-rustling, McQueeney turned up at the ‘Tent in July 1858 and began creepily haunting the pleasing mistress with the well-proportioned stock shelves.

Until, for no known provocation save plunder, McQueeney murdered the widow owner Elizabeth Lowe and fled.

The poor woman’s body was chanced upon soon thereafter and travelers’ reports of a dead-eyed and overladen swag-man making tracks for Geelong soon zeroed the search in on the desperado, still carrying Ms. Lowe’s incriminatingly distinctive property.

McQueeney, who was noted for his obnoxious bravado from the moment of his first police examination all the way to condemnation evidently labored until almost the very last “under the infatuation that he would yet be reprieved … on the ground of the great aversion entertained by a large class of people to capital punishment under any circumstances. This belief of his in the morbid sympathies of his fellow-creatures, there can be no doubt, induced him to the last to disown his crime” even though he admitted to many other ones. Nevertheless, he continued his irascible act all the way to the noose, griping at the executioner for holding him too tight and pulling the hood down too soon.

Notwithstanding (or better owing to) his notoriety, McQueeney was sought out posthumously by a crippled woman, who besought the indulgence of the sheriff to touch McQueeney’s dead hands to her own in hopes of obtaining a curative from the legendary power of the hanged man’s hand.


Modeled on London’s Pentonville Prison, Old Geelong Gaol — officially HMS Prison Geelong — hosted six executions in its initial incarnation from the 1850s to the 1860s. Two occurred within its walls; McQueeney’s and three others took place in a paddock a few hundred meters away.

Old Geelong Gaol was converted in 1865 to an “industrial school” for street urchins, and 12 years after that into a prison-hospital. The dusty old place, famous for is spartan amenities resumed life as a working gaol after World War II and only closed in 1991 — but never had another hanging after the 1860s. Today it is open for public tours, complete with gallows exhibit.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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1817: Maggie Houghtaling

Add comment October 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1817, Maggie Houghtaling (alias Peggy Densmore) was hanged in Hudson, N.Y. for infanticide.

Houghtaling lived with the mother of 15-month-old Lewis Spencer. One awful day in August — just eight weeks before the consequent execution — the mother popped out of the house a few moments and left Lewis gnawing on a piece of bread under her roommate’s care.

When the mother returned, she found the child “apparently in convulsions, its tongue protruded from the mouth, and covered with erosions — the inside of the mouth corrugated, and all the shocking symptons which may be supposed to follow from a potion so horrid.” The potion referred to in this account of the New York Evening Post (September 23, 1817): vitriol, also known as sulfuric acid. It’ll do a number on you.

The self-evident inference was that his babysitter had poisoned the kid — an inference the mother made immediately and that Maggie Houghtaling vainly sought to repel all the way to the rope.*

Hudson’s Northern Whig reported a heavily-attended (five to ten to even fifteen thousand souls, by various estimates) but orderly scene and “the ceremonies of the day … conducted with great propriety.” Houghtaling herself was composed and even indifferent** riding a horse-drawn cart with a halter around her neck to a scaffold erected on the pastures north of State Street.†

Houghtaling made one last assertion of her innocence under the gallows, despite the overwhelming confidence her contemporaries had in her guilt. “Such declarations,” sniffed the Otsego Herald (Oct. 30, 1817) “after a fair and impartial trial, and from her incredibility of character, were not entitled to consideration, and made but little impression in her favor.”

Then she swung.


Many, many years later, as the Empire State prepared to execute Roxalana Druse — the very last woman put to death by hanging in New York — one of the numerous pamphlets published in the hope of sparing Ms. Druse curiously resuscitated the Houghtaling hanging.

Mrs. Druse’s case and Maggie Houghtaling: An innocent woman hanged claims that the secret of the crime was revealed to its writer by “a tall, handsome lady of middle age and most refined manner” who had “befriended Peggy, when that unfortunate young woman was being tried and she was the last one who prayed in her cell with her before she was led out for execution.” Since Roxalana Druse was hanged seventy years after our Ms. Houghtaling, this refined Samaritan must have discovered the font of middle age.

There is no evidence I have been able to locate of the manipulative story purportedly related surfacing in any official fashion to exonerate Maggie Houghtaling (or “Peggy Houghtaling”, here). But doubts aside — and we must allow that the incendiary domestic murder of a child has been known to railroad a body now and again — this qualifies at the very least as intriguing folklore: the young woman publicly executed over her protestations of innocence still maintained a purchase on the public conscience seven decades after her death.

In agony she [Houghtaling] begged for her life to be at least spared till she had an opportunity to prove her innocence. But, no, there was no mercy for her as the case was a most revoltingly brutal one, and the wretched woman was strung up like a dog six weeks [sic] after the murder, protesting with her last breath:

God forgive you all for hanging me; but I am innocent, and my only prayer is that some day it may be proved and the black spot taken off my name and memory.

That some day did not come for seveal years, and then the real murderess was found. She had been a rival of poor Peggy’s in the affections of the same man, and was “cut out” as she called it, by Peggy. In her disappointment and rage she resolved on revenge, but buried it in her heart, and appeared very friendly and indifferent on the surface. At last she got her opportunity, and she cold-bloodedly murdered Peggy’s child. [sic] Her devilish plot had been laid with the most consummat skill, in such a way that suspicion was thrown upon the mother, who accordingly was arrested. The public mind was aroused to the highest point of excitement, most especially by the testimony of this very witness, given on the stand amidst a flow of crocodile tears, and apparently with great reluctance. Her revenge was thus complete; but as he always does, the devil sowed in her bosom the little black seed of remorse, and it sprouted and grew, and spread, until she was the most unhappy wretch in existence. At night the ghosts of her two victims came to her in her sleep, and she would wake up screaming with terror and in daytime her imagination brought them before her, at times so vividly that she would fall in fits.

After enduring a lifetime’s pangs of remorse, the “real murderess” (never named) at last expires

in convulsions on the bed, screaming, clasping her hands, tearing at her throat, and crying out:

“I am lost! I’m lost, forever! There is no forgiveness! none! none!”

In the midst of one of these awful paroxysms the guilty wretch suddenly expired, and her soul stood in the presence of her Maker, to answer for the hideous crime she had committed on earth.

* Maggie Houghtaling was prosecuted by District Attorney Moses I. Cantine with the assistance of his brother-in-law, who just happened to be the state Attorney General: future U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (Evening Post, Sept. 23, 1817)

** By the conventions of the execution bulletin, condemned prisoners are remarked “indifferent” when their composure exceeds the reporter’s own.

† I have no idea whether it actually relates to this date’s events but one would be remiss not to mention that the next lane north of State Street in Hudson is something called Rope Alley.

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1935: George Criner, “anything can happen to anybody”

3 comments October 16th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“A few minutes before this happened if anyone had told me that I would be here, I would have said they were crazy. But remember, anything can happen to anybody. You can walk out on the street and die of heart trouble. Or you can go out on the street and get run over. I think that will be all.”

-George Criner, convicted of murder, hanging, Montana. Executed October 16, 1935

Criner came home very drunk one night and tried to take his girlfriend’s diamond ring. She refused to let him, and he beat her with an iron poker and cut her with a pocketknife, then shot the police officer who tried to intervene. At the preliminary hearing, Criner said that he very much wished he hadn’t been there.

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