Posts filed under 'Public Executions'

1752: James Lowry, despotical nautical

Add comment March 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1752 the tyrannous Scottish sea captain James Lowrey or Lowry was hanged at London’s execution dock for beating a crew member to death.

Lowr(e)y came to public notice in 1751 after the return to English shores of his merchantman, the Molly, from a run to Jamaica: ten of his ex-crew subscribed a public advertisement accusing him of murdering their mate on board, to which Lowry replied with advertisements accusing those accusers of mutiny.

Right away the British public knew it had a page-turner on its hands.

The captain had become unreasonably enraged with Kennith Hossack for lagging in his duties as he recovered from an illness, and upon a purported accusation of theft he had the mariner tied up and personally battered him about the head using a doubled-over rope as his cudgel, on Christmas Eve no less. Hossack at last dropped dead, at which point the heartless captain slapped his man and denounced him for “shamming Abraham” (i.e., feigning injury to skip work). Lowry evidently really had it in for Hossack, for the first mate explained that “I don’t know that he ever came upon deck twice in a week without beating him: my heart has bled for him many and many a time.” In the mate’s opinion, these beatings were always for no adequate reason.*

That’s a remark from the Admiralty Trial of Captain Lowry, where his former seamen developed the picture of an intolerably Queeg-like commander liable to take bitter umbrage if his men managed an illicit extra ration of sugar or rum, a guy who carried around a beating-cane with its own name (“the Royal Oak Foremast”) just in case he felt like doling out a disciplinary bludgeon. Three days after Hossack’s death, he came to blows with the second mate; two days after that, a fed-up crew “took the command from him” and ran the ship themselves, although they did not forcibly confine him.

Once the ship put in at Lisbon for repairs on the return journey, Lowry lodged a piracy complaint against his crew, but despite the incredibly serious charges and countercharges, everybody sailed on together for home thereafter, each party perhaps silently calculating the odds that the other would dare to press the case further as against getting on about their lives. Lowry does not appear to have made himself scarce until his former comrades went public with their claims, although once they did so he incriminatingly avoided the thief-takers and the small private reward set upon his capture for a few weeks.

On March 25, 1752, the brute was carried from Newgate Prison to the Execution Dock on the Thames, in a cart surmounted by a silver oar emblematic of the Admiralty. There he was hanged, and his body afterwards put in irons and displayed in infamy down the river at Blackwall.


Lowry pictured as part of a “Scotch Triumvirate” of Caledonian evildoers, along with the Scottish officer William Cranstoun, blamed for seducing Mary Blandy to the gallows, and the more mysterious “Major James MacDonald” whose papers suggest involvement in the South Sea Bubble 32 years prior (?). I’m in good company with my confusion on this MacDonald fellow, as the British Museum can’t identify him either. Check out britishtars.com for a fascinating exposition on the iconographic detail of the Lowry images in this post; we have also featured in this narrative several additional links to that same site’s various posts about the events on the Molly.

We have revisited a few times in these pages the intense commercial bustle among publishers of crime ephemera — in England as well as Ireland. Naturally this headline-grabbing execution excited plenty of competitive hawking.

Two examples appear below; the first of them is by a pair of publishers named Harris and Scott; the second, by Parker and Corbett, who at this time had the deal to publish the Ordinary of Newgate’s accounts. Harris and Scott were first to the market here, in an environment where rapidity counted for a lot; the Ordinary wanted to be sure the public knew that his “official” (according to him) version would be soon forthcoming, so he burdened the pages of London newspapers and even his own Ordinary’s Account of ‘regular’ Tyburn criminals with adverts to that effect.


This image from the London General Advertiser of March 26, 1752, one of several papers to carry the notice. For more on the relationship between publishers and crime in this era, see Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London by Richard Ward

Read on below to enjoy both.

* In fact, one nugget from this case is that an adequate reason for corporal punishment at sea might sit at a much higher threshold than we commonly assume today. Although the Royal Navy was (in)famous for the discipline of the lash, multiple experienced sailors testified at this trial that they never knew floggings or beatings to occur on merchant vessels.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1819: John Van Alstine

Add comment March 19th, 2019 Headsman

John Van Alstine was (incompetently) hanged two hundred years ago today for murdering Schoharie County, N.Y., deputy sheriff William Huddleston — whom he bludgeoned to death in a rage when Huddleston turned up to execute a civil judgment forcing the sale of Van Alstine’s property to service a debt. The man acknowledged having a ferocious temper.

“It is not a year since I stated in Judge Beekman’s presence, (and, I stated it as the firm conviction of my mind), that there were two things I should never come to — the state’s prison and the gallows,” the confessed murderer mused in his public reflections, below. “How often have these words occurred to me since the regretted 9th, and taught me the vanity of human boasting, and the weakness of human resolution, when opposed to long indulged passions.”


This document has also been transcribed here.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1696: Charnock, King, and Keyes, frustrated of regicide

Add comment March 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1696, a trio of Jacobite conspirators were hanged for their failed assassination plot against King William.

An exiled loyalist to the deposed King James II, the onetime Oxford don Robert Charnock conceived what the propagandists would call “the late Hellish and Barbarous Plott” along with fellow Stuart loyalist George Barclay. Their mission in murdering William III was to catalyze a general Jacobite rising that would reverse the Glorious Revolution and restore James to the throne: it was a recurring campaign against the Dutch usurper throughout the 1690s.

Ambush was the gambit proposed by the worthies in this case, for William.

was in the habit of going every Saturday from Kensington to hunt in Richmond Park. There was then no bridge over the Thames between London and Kingston. The King therefore went, in a coach escorted by some of his body guards, through Turnham Green to the river. There he took boat, crossed the water, and found another coach and another set of guards ready to receive him on the Surrey side. The first coach and the first set of guards awaited his return on the northern bank. The conspirators ascertained with great precision the whole order of these journeys, and carefully examined the ground on both sides of the Thames. They thought that they should attack the King with more advantage on the Middlesex than on the Surrey bank, and when he was returning than when he was going … The place was to be a narrow and winding lane leading from the landing place on the north of the river to Turnham Green … a quagmire, through which the royal coach was with difficulty tugged at a foot’s pace. The time was to be the afternoon of Saturday the fifteenth of February. (Macaulay)

Some 40 assassins had been marshaled for the purpose of surprising the royal party on that occasion but as they nursed their cups in the vicinity’s public houses they received the disquieting intelligence that the king had skipped the hunt that day.

Although the inclement weather was the reason given out, the truth of the matter was that they were betrayed. In a week’s time, most of the conspirators would be in custody* and the country on a virtual war footing against prospective invasion by France. On March 11, the first three prospective assassins stood at the bar: Charnock, Edward King, and Thomas Keyes. They were plainly guilty and condemned accordingly.

King died firmly; Keyes, in “an agony of terror … [that] moved the pity of some of the spectators”; and Charnock, being repelled in his bid to turn songbird in exchange for his life, went out with a missive bitterly defending his project, for “if an army of twenty thousand men had suddenly landed in England and surprised the usurper, this would have been called legitimate war. Did the difference between war and assassination depend merely on the number of persons engaged?” (both quotes from Macaulay) Several additional conspirators would follow them to the scaffold in the weeks to come.


“The Triumphs of Providence over Hell, France & Rome”: Broadside celebrating and satirizing the deliverance of the realm from the Jacobite plot, via the British Museum.

* George Barclay, however, successfully escaped to the continent.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1780: Elizabeth Butchill, Trinity College Cambridge bedding-girl

2 comments March 17th, 2019 Headsman

A Cambridge University servant was hanged on this date in 1780 for infanticide.

Elizabeth Butchill made her way turning down the beds for the boys attending Trinity College, work she had secured via her aunt who held the same position. She somehow got pregnant, an event which does not appear to have inordinately exercised her eventual judges perhaps by virtue of its very obviousness; as Frank McLynn wryly observes, “It does not need the imagination of a novelist to reconstruct the events that led her to the gallows.”

She was surely desperate to avoid social opprobrium and unemployment, so we find from the Newgate Calendar that “she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning [January 6, 1780], about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house.”

“Modest, patient, and penitent” during her confinement awaiting the noose, Butchill died

firm, resigned, and exemplary. She joined with the minister in prayer, and sung the lamentation of a sinner with marks of a sincere penitent, declaring she had made her peace with God, and was reconciled to her fate. Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

Whether the nameless infant’s nameless father shared those tears is a matter for the novelist’s imagination.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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1695: Highwayman Biss

1 comment March 12th, 2019 Headsman

This ballad transmits to posterity via the Pepys collection of late 17th century ephemera stashed by that famed diarist Samuel Pepys. (In these pages, we’ve already met Mr. Pepys lurking about various executions.)

The Penitent Highway-man: Or, The Last Farewel of Mr. Biss, Who was Born at Shaftsbury, in Wiltshire, and was arrain’d and found guilty, and accordingly received Sentence of Death, and was Executed at Salisbury, on the 12th of March, 1695.

To the Tune of, Russel’s Farewel, &c.

Good People all I pray attend,
and listen now to me,
A sad Relation here I send
of Biss in Shaftsbury:
A noted Highway-man he was
who on the Road did ride,
And at the length it came to pass,
he was condemn’d and dy’d.

When he was to his Tryal brought,
and at the Bar did stand,
He for no kind of favour sought,
but there held up his Hand,
Declaring to the pantient Judge,
who was to try him then,
He should not bear him any grudge,
he wan’t the worst of Men.

He said, The Scriptures I fulfill’d,
though I this Life did lead,
For when the Naked I beheld,
I clothed them with speed:
Sometimes in Cloth and Winter-frize,
sometimes in Russet-gray;
The Poor I fed, the Rich likewise
I empty sent away.

What say you now my honour’d Lord,
what harm was there in this?
Rich wealthy Misers was abhorr’d
by brave free-hearted Biss.
I never robb’d nor wrong’d the Poor,
as well it doth appear;
Be pleas’d to favour me therefore,
and be not too severe.

Upon the Road a Man I met,
was posting to a Jayl,
Because he could not pay his Debt,
nor give sufficient Bayl:
A kind and loving Friend he found,
that very day of me,
Who paid the Miser forty Pound,
and set the Prisoner free.

Tho’ he had got the Guinneys bright,
and put them in his Purse,
I follow’d him that very night,
I could not leave him thus;
Mounting my prancing Steed again,
I crost a point of land,
Meeting the Miser in a lane,
where soon I bid him stand:

You borrow’d forty Pounds, you know,
of me this very day,
I cannot trust, before you go
I must have present pay:
With that I seiz’d & search’d him round,
and rifl’d all his store,
Where straight I got my forty Pound,
with twenty Guinneys more.

The Judge he made him this reply,
Your Joaks are all in vain,
By Law you are condemn’d to Dye,
you will no Pardon gain,
Therefore, Repent, repent with speed,
for what is gone and past,
Tho’ you the Poor did clothe and feed,
you suffer must at last.

That word was like a fatal sword,
it pierc’d him to the heart;
The Lord for Mercy he implor’d,
as knowing he must part
With all his Friends and Pleasures too,
to be as I have said,
At Salsbury to Peoples view,
a sad Example made.

His melting Eyes did over-flow
with penitential Tears,
To see his dismal Overthrow,
just in his strength of Years.
O kind and loving Friends, he cry’d,
take warning now by me,
Who must the pains of Death abide,
this day in Salsbury.

In grief and sorrow now I pass
out of the World this day,
The latter minute’s in the glass,
therefore good People pray,
That as this painful Life I leave,
the Lord may pity take,
And in his arms my Soul receive,
even for his Mercies sake.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1802: Robert Snooks, “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

Add comment March 11th, 2019 Headsman

James Snook(s), who is remembered as Robert Snooks — a possible corruption of “Robber Snook” — was a career robber with a record. He hanged on this date in 1802 for mugging the Tring Mail postboy, an adventure that grossed 80 quid worth of notes ransacked from correspondence he left strewn on Boxmoor.

His decision to discard a distinctive saddle with a broken strap cracked the case for authorities and a reward for his capture went abroad — a reward claimed by “William Salt, a postboy of Hungerford, in Berkshire” who “was born in the same town as the prisoner, where they were play-fellows” and so recognized him immediately on Saturday night driving his chaise through Marlborough Forest and chased down and overpowered Snook whose resistance to his old chum did not extend to use of the “two loaded pistols … in his coat pocket.” (all quotes from the London Morning Chronicle of December 9, 1801)

Tried at the Hertford assizes, he was found to have spent notes known to be in the Tring Mail and on that basis* condemned on a Tuesday … to be dispatched with dispatch that Thursday morning on Boxmoor, near the site of the robbery. “It’s no good hurrying,” he allegedly quipped to gawkers while enjoying a last drink at a nearby pub. “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

A weathered stone erected a century later marks the supposed place of his burial, and can be visited at Hemel Hempstead. For reasons that elude my understanding, a number of sites including Wikipedia as of this writing claim that this gentleman was the last person executed in England for highway robbery. That’s not even close to accurate.

* The postboy he attacked could not identify him positively, since the crime occurred at night.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1431: Thomas Bagley, Lollard martyr

Add comment March 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1431, an Essex priest named Thomas Bagley — “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe,” which is to say a Lollard heretic — was put to the torch at St. Paul’s Cross, London, while the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced his heresies.

He was prey to a crackdown on his seditiously egalitarian sect launched in 1428 by the said archbishop, Henry Chicele. That outlawed movement still persisted despite the defeat of its most famous rebellion more than a decade before.

Lollards had a low opinion of both the perquisites and the ritual trappings of the institutional church, so Bagley “was accused of declaring that if in the sacrament a priest made bread into God, he made a God that can be eaten by rats and mice; that the pharisees of the day, the monks, and the nuns, and the friars and all the other privileged persons recognized by the church were limbs of Satan; and that auricular confession to the priest was the will not of God but of the devil. And others [other Lollards] held that any priest who took salary was excommunicate; and that boys could bless the bread as well as priests.”

Pressed by their persecutors, the Lollard movement mounted its last major armed rebellion weeks later, in May of 1431 — storming Abindgon Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The attacks came to nothing save the execution of its leadership.

For many years thereafter, until its remnants swept into the Reformation, Lollardy haunted English elites from the shadows and the underground — “a persistent, covert tradition of radical thinking” whose reach in the English population is unknowable. It was never again strong enough to mount a rising in its own name but surfaced martyrs here and there and might have contributed inspiration and simpatico to other challenges that shook the masters in the 15th century, like (speculatively) 1450’s Jack Cade rebellion out of Lollard-rich Kent.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1803: Jillis Bruggeman, the last executed for sodomy in the Netherlands

Add comment March 9th, 2019 Headsman

The last person executed in the Netherlands for homosexuality was Jillis Bruggeman, on March 9, 1803.

Bruggeman ‘s long career in “the horrible sin of sodomy” — for which he had been paying blackmail to one former partner for many years before a different confidante betrayed him — so shocked the court that the evidence of his activities was sequestered in a special pouch. He was flogged and hanged at the grand market of the southern city Schiedam.

There’s an annual Jillis Bruggeman Medal awarded to a someone who has made a signal contribution to defending LGBTQ people.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Homosexuals,Milestones,Netherlands,Public Executions,Sex,Torture

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1855: Manuel da Mota Coquiero, the Beast of Macabu

Add comment March 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1855 a wealthy farmer named Manuel da Mota Coqueiro — “the Beast of Macabu” in the popular nomenclature — was hanged for orchestrating the slaughter of a tenant farmer and his entire family.

Mota Coqueiro — that’s a Portuguese link, as are almost all sources about this gentleman — ticked the “motive” box thanks to his running conflict with the victim, Francisco Benedito da Silva. Mota Coqueiro had had an affair with Benedito’s daughter Francisca and the two men quarreled thereafter over compensation for Francisca’s resulting pregnancy — quarrels that broadened over the course of 1852 into the more conventional vectors of landlord-tenant conflict. In a relationship there’s having hand, and then there’s being able to evict your significant other’s entire family.

On a literal dark and stormy night that September, a machete-wielding gang of Black men invaded Francisco’s home, beating and slashing to death the man, his wife, and six children ranging in age from three years to teenagers. The only survivor, fleeing into the woods as the murderers made a pyre of their house, was Mota Coquiero’s former lover Francisca. Naturally the volatile landlord with the grudge against the victim was an immediate suspect, and he compounded the suspicion by fleeing in disguise as the investigation unfolded. In a climate of mounting public outrage, Mota Coquiero quickly became fixed in the eyes of police and public alike as the man who had surely ordered his slaves to commit the crime; a slave and two free Black servants in his household would likewise be executed for the crime. However, the evidence ultimately comprised a tissue of self-confirming inference and hearsay with no direct indicia of Mota Coqueiro’s guilt.

Today, he’s commonly remembered as the victim of a miscarriage of justice,* although there’s a dissatisfying want of firm evidence to implicate anyone in particular in his place. The 1877 historical novel Mota Coqueiro, au A Pena de Morte even resorted to inventing an ahistorical character to carry the blame.

The man himself denied guilt all the way to the end. There’s a rumor that he laid a 100-year curse on the city of Macae that lagged economic development … until the discovery of oil there broke the spell in the 1950s, a century later.

* Mota Coquiero is also widely associated in the popular imagination with the end of capital punishment in Brazil. However, he was not nearly the last executed in Brazil nor even the last free man executed in Brazil. What is certain is that Emperor Pedro II who failed to spare Mota Coquiero would gradually turn against the death penalty over the years to come — although any causation by this particular case remains purely speculative.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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