Posts filed under 'Virginia'

1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven cmopatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald

Add comment June 13th, 2015 Headsman

Dispatches to the New York Herald from 1873 give us today’s post: a little portrait of public hangings in Reconstruction Dixie.

Isham Belton O’Neill, 32 at his death, hanged in Atlanta on this date in 1873; the Herald reported it in the next day’s edition.

O’Neill grew up on a farm outside Atlanta but was taken to the city by service in the Confederate army.

Postwar, he started a short-lived painting business with a fellow veteran, John Little: short-lived, because within a few months the courts were sorting out the partnership’s dissolution. Little, evidently, felt hard done by their rulings and “met O’Neill on the street several times after the snit, and even visited him at his shop, always urging him to let him have a sash, which he claimed to be his own property.”

On September 5th, 1871, they bumped into each other again by accident and after a few pleasantriles, Little started in on the sash again. “You got it be swearing a damned lie,” he insisted.

The testimony is that O’Neill then struck him in the face, and [Little] seized O’Neill first by the collar and then by his hands, which he endeavored to hold firmly; but O’Neill, by turning and exerting himself, wrenched his right hand from Little’s grasp, put it behind him and drew from under his coat a large Bowie Knife and quickly stabbed Little in the abdomen, the knife penetrating six inches deep, making a surface cut of two inches long, the sides of which were jagged, as if the sharp, two-edged knife, after having been plunged in, had been twisted round and drawn out.

Enough about the sash, okay?

O’Neill was a respectable fellow in the community (apart from the unpleasantness), and he stuck to a shaky “self-defense” story long enough that he might have started to believe it himself. So even though Little gurgled his last that night with five feet of bowel hanging out of the jagged fissure O’Neill had carved, the killer felt inordinately confident of an executive reprieve.

O’Neill even eschewed the opportunity to escape during a general jailbreak in February 1872, obediently remaining in his spot even with the cell door popped wide open in front of him. Several fellow prisoners successfully absconded on this occasion and avoided recapture.

O’Neill only received word of the governor’s final rejection of his petition at 1 in the morning on the date of his hanging, when “he was awakened out of a sound sleep to receive it.”

Up to that moment he had been confident in the belief that his life would be spared by the Governor, and had refused to listen to the advice of his counsel and spiritual advisers to prepare for death. When he was told that the last hope was gone he felt very bad and was convinced. For the first time he seemed to realize the awful situation, broke down and gave way to piercing cries and lamentations — “Oh! is it all over with me? My God! it is terrible. Does the Governor refuse even a respite? O merciful God, is there no other chance!” and he ended with long heartrending, choking sobs.

We turn now to the Herald‘s June 17 report of a public execution from Lebanon, Virginia.

A steady, sharp stroke of a hatchet, a rope is cut, the crash of a falling drop follows, another rope is stretched to its utmost tension, there is a rebound and the body of Archie Johnson, a negro, is swinging in the air, a solemn warning to an immense multitude of spectators that “he that sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.”

Archie Johnson, “a copper-colored negro, about twenty-eight years of age” with a countenance “regular and well cut for a negro” was the former slave of a local Russell County gentleman.

Upon liberation, the correspondent charges, he “began a career of dissipation and vice,” driving away a wife with his wantonness before he “totally abandoned himself to all that was degraded, vicious and criminal.” At last, he murdered a man named Hunt.

This story is particularly intriguing for the writer’s detailed — often editorializing — reportage of the hanging details.

Not only all Russell county were on the grounds, but from Washington, Scott and other surrounding counties many thousands came to behold the death struggles of a condemned felon. The number of females in the vast throng was somewhat astonishing, and their complexions were as varied as the costumes they wore. Some were as black as a traditional ace of spaces, others as fair as the whitest lily, while the intermediate embraced every imaginable shade between the two. A large number of these came on horseback, their long, dark riding skirts forming a happy contrast with the innumerable bright and gaudy colors worn by the pedestrians. As to horses, all the available racks, trees and fences in town were thickly lined with them, and then it seemed that the surrounding woods were densely picketed with them. The prevailing costumes of the men were blue and gray jeans. The valleys, the knobs, the peaks and plains, the huts and houses, seemed to have poured themselves out to-day, all actuated by the same common, morbid curiosity, and it can safely be said that scarcely a score of them were solemnly impressed by the terrible scene they witnessed. The number present was estimated at six thousand people.

Turning from sociology to engineering, our observer sketches the construction of the lethal apparatus:


was a very ordinary, rude affair, consisting of the usual two main uprights, a narrow platform in the rear, in front of which was the drop, supported by a rope. This ran through the crossbeam near the centre, and was secured to a peg driven in one of the uprights, about four feet from the ground. It allowed of a fall of six feet, and was in all respects as thorough and effective as a majority of the clumsy, murderous machines* generally used in such instances in the South. The structure was situated in the old field to the north of the town and about half a mile distant from the jail.

As for Johnson himself, he signed off on a written confession blaming for his downfall those usual suspects: liquor, cards, loose women. Then he puffed a nonchalant cigar as he rode on his coffin to the gallows, “neatly and tastefully attired in a suit of entire black cloth, black cap, with gloves and gaiters”; he sat on a chair beside his noose for two different sermons (Methodist and Baptist), then a hymn which Johnson “joined with great spirit and religious zeal,” asked one last cigar which he puffed happily for ten minutes in which “his coolness just at this time excited the wonder of many and the admiration of more,” and finally at 2:24 p.m. — 48 minutes after he arrived at the gallows — submitted to his fate.

There was a third U.S. hanging on June 13, 1873: Joseph Duncan, in a public execution at Paris, Ky., for murder. All I have been able to learn in particular of Duncan’s hanging was that his first rope broke, necessitating the ol’ do-over.

* Presumably the Yankee’s judgment of the gallows here is informed by New York’s having “progressed” to upward-jerking hangings.

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1886: Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, for election rejection

Add comment June 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1886 gives us the double execution of two men named Banks and Honesty — words we don’t hear in the same sentence every day, amirite?

Baltimore Sun, June 5, 1886: the source of all newspaper quotes in this post.

That’s Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, to be exact, “two full-grown and powerful negroes” who to nobody’s satisfaction denied all the way to the gallows that they had murdered a white 18-year-old, Joseph McFaul, outside the (still-extant) Taylor Hotel on November 14, 1884. The sources I have located do not explicate any beef specifically known to have existed between these individuals; they do, however, situate the conflict squarely within America’s political environment in that electoral year. It is not only in passing that we have noted the parties’ racial identities.

Days before McFaul died, former hangman Grover Cleveland was elected President — the first Democrat to win the office since before the Civil War.

It might be better to say that Cleveland was the first Democrat to hold the office. The tossup 1876 presidential election was more-or-less won by New York Democrat Samuel Tilden, but he was bilked of the prize in an electoral college bargain that exchanged another Republican presidency for the end of Reconstruction.

In the 1870s and 1880s, northern whites were steadily coming around towards Southern whites’ distaste for the ongoing rigor necessary to enforce the putative equality of ex-slaves with their former masters.

Recognizing that such lethargy among white elites in effect amounted to abandoning the field to the violent reassertion of white supremacy, blacks were deeply apprehensive about 1884. Some even feared that chattel slavery might be restored outright. For all the growing indifference of the Republicans, the potential election of the Democrat Cleveland, T. Thomas Fortune wrote during the campaign, “would be a cold afternoon for this country and especially for the Negro and the laboring classes.” (Via)

This is presumably why McFaul, a Democrat taking part in a celebratory parade for Cleveland’s election, would have been hateful to Banks and Honesty. According to the Baltimore Sun, those latter two had previously “traversed the [march] route, threatening to kill some democrat.” Later, McFaul chanced to nominate himself their target by stepping into an alley, where the two churls “immediately attacked him.” Some passing Samaritan saw what was happening and managed to pull McFaul out of the alley and onto the street; still, his assailants did not disdain to press the assault in public view and clobbered the young man with a rock.

Everyone parted and went their separate ways, but young McFaul was a dead man walking. His skull fractured by the stone, he died that night in his sleep.

President Cleveland, of course, did not restore slavery. He took little interest in the situation of black Americans and did nothing to check the onset of Jim Crow, but in this he was not so different from his Republican contemporaries. Nobody among the nation’s white elite had a belly for the fight any longer.

Frederick Douglass had to concede in a Washington, D.C. speech of 1886 that “as far as the colored people of the country are concerned, their condition seems no better and not much worse than under previous administrations.”

Lynch law, violence, and murder have gone on about the same as formerly, and without the least show of Federal interference or popular rebuke. The Constitution has been openly violated with the usual impunity, and the colored vote has been as completely nullified, suppressed, and scouted as if the fifteenth amendment formed no part of the Constitution, and as if every colored citizen of the South had been struck dead by lightning or blown to atoms by dynamite. There have also been the usual number of outrages committed against the civil rights of colored citizens on highways and by-ways, by land and by water, and the courts of the country, under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, have shown the same disposition to punish the innocent and shield the guilty, as during the presidency of Mr. Arthur.

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1864: Thomas Dawson, manhood sealed

1 comment April 25th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. 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.)

“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”

-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864

An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.

Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”

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1745: Eve, her smoke visible throughout the country

4 comments January 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1745, Orange County, Virginia was darkened by the smoke from a stake where a slave named Eve died for poisoning her master, Peter Montague.

As accused, Eve, “not having God before her eyes nor considering the obedience to the said Peter Montague, her master, but led and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force of arms and her malice forethought, feloniously and traitorously did mingle and poison milk … did give it to the said Peter Montague, which he did taste, eat, drink and swallow down … and did languish until the 27th day of December. Eve falsely, traitorously and feloniously of her malice forethought with the poison … did kill, poison and murder.” (Quoted here.)

Eve asserted her innocence to no avail at her trial on January 23. The court condemned her to “be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there to be burnt.”

Upon the execution of that sentence — “the smoke of the burning of Eve was visible over a large extent of the country” — the Montague estate was compensated £50 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the destruction of its human property.

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1788: John Price Posey, “superlative villain”

Add comment January 25th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1788, John Price Posey was publicly hanged in Richmond, Virginia for arson.

He was 35 years old, with two children.

Posey, born in 1752, didn’t have the kind of background you would expect for an executed felon. His uncle was the Revolutionary War general Thomas Posey. Posey himself was a childhood playmate of John Parke “Jacky” Custis, stepson of Founding Father George Washington.

John Price Posey grew up near the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation and was a frequent guest there. After he completed his education, Washington helped him find a job. When Jacky Custis reached legal age, he appointed Posey as steward of his plantation in New Kent County.

All went well for awhile. Posey even became justice of the peace and served in the house of delegates between 1780 and 1781.

The situation soured, however, after Jacky died in November 1781. George Washington learned that his deceased stepson’s erstwhile friend had been embezzling money from Jacky’s estate. He had sold off some of Jacky’s slaves and pocketed the profits, and later on he was caught stealing a cow from the plantation. For this “abuse and misapplication” of his duties, Posey was fined a total of £225 and removed from his position as justice of the peace. In his correspondence, General Washington referred to him as a “Superlative Villain.”

In June 1787, Posey was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentenced to a month in jail. On July 12, he escaped. Three days later, he and an accomplice, Thomas Green, returned to the jail with two slaves called Sawney and Hercules. The four men set fire to the jail, went two miles up the road and then set the county clerk’s office on fire. It burned to the ground and all the county records stored within were destroyed.*

Posey was back in custody within a day of the arson attacks, and after his arrest, Thomas Green confessed to his role in the affair. Posey was brought to Richmond in chains to stand trial for arson, which was a capital crime at the time. Convicted on October 1, he filed an appeal. On January 18, 1788 the Virginia Court of Appeals voted nine to one to reject his petition for clemency, and told him he must die.

Posey then sent a written request to the governor, Edmund Randolph:

The unfortunate and most unhappy John Price Posey begs that a further indulgence of a few days could be allowed him — Hopeful that it would be attended with giving further relief to the peace of mind that your unfortunate petitioner is now in search of.

This bought him a week’s stay. On January 25, he was hanged on Richmond’s gallows alongside James M’Connell Fox, a murderer. His body was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in the Mount Airy area.

Virginia law allowed the state to confiscate a person’s property in cases of capital convictions, but in this case, unusually, the Virginia legislature returned everything to Posey’s widow, Anne Kidley Posey. She ultimately remarried.

As for his partners-in-crime: Thomas Green was never tried for his role in the arson attacks, and the slaves Sawney and Hercules were ultimately pardoned and given back to their owner, Posey’s brother-in-law.

* New Kent County’s archives also held colonial-era records for several other counties. Posey’s spiteful torch wiped out a trove of invaluable colonial-era records and is still lamented by historians and genealogists whose work touches that period as “the greatest loss”.

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2013: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment January 16th, 2015 Headsman

United States

The first U.S. execution of 2013 was that of Robert Gleason, Jr. in Virginia last January 16.

Gleason was serving a life sentence for another murder when he conned a fellow-prisoner into letting him tie his hands as part of a supposed escape attempt. Instead, Gleason choked the poor bastard to death with a urine-soaked sponge.

The killer said he did this precisely in order to be executed.

“I murdered that man cold-bloodedly,” he told a reporter in 2010. “I planned it and I’m gonna do it again. Someone needs to stop it. The only way to stop me is to put me on death row.”

He was as good as his word. That summer, he got a necklace around the throat of a prisoner in a neighboring solitary pen and horribly throttled him to death. Virginia obliged Gleason’s heart’s desire with a death sentence that the killer did not contest.

Unusually, Gleason chose to die in the state’s 104-year-old oak electric chair, rather than by lethal injection. Virginia at the time was one of 10 states still allowing an inmate to choose electrocution, but Gleason was the first person to do so since 2010.

His last words: “Well, I hope Percy ain’t going to wet the sponge. Put me on the highway to Jackson and call my Irish buddies. Pog mo thoin. God bless.” As was widely reported after the fact, Pog mo thoin is Gaelic for “kiss my ass.”

His last words — and everything else about him — are remembered here by a reporter who got to know Gleason during his three-year journey to the death chamber.


Dennis Allex, an agent of French intelligence held captive for over three years by al-Shabaab militants, was allegedly summarily executed on January 16 following an unsuccessful French raid to free him.

Allex, whose name is thought to be a pseudonym, had been seized in Mogadishu in 2009 and forced during his captivity to broadcast his captors’ demands.

Following the French intervention in Mali last January — an event potentially raising the danger for French hostages throughout the Islamic world — a commando unit attempted to free Allex on January 12.

The French suspect that Allex might have been killed during that operation. His captors, however, claimed that Allex survived it, and that they thereafter “reached a unanimous decision to execute the French intelligence officer, Dennis Allex.

“With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex’s death warrant”


On this date in 2013, Iran hanged a man in public in the city of Sabzevar.

Also in Sabzevar on the same day, another man suffered a spectacular public lashing.

Still another prisoner was reportedly hanged privately in Mashhad on January 16 in Iran.

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1865: Henry Regley and Charles King, General Sheridan’s deserters

Add comment January 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, two Union soldiers were shot as spies at Winchester, Virginia.

Union General Philip Sheridan and his famed Napoleon complex* were wintering in Winchester, Va. where he had recently clinched northern control of the Shenandoah Valley, and put its fertile farmlands to the torch to cripple the rebel army.

Sheridan, who had in the course of that campaign made his lasting fame by rallying his troops after an initially devastating Confederate surprise attack, was highly concerned at the prospect of rebel spies and infiltrators.

Our two poor fellows, Henry Regley and Charles King, were actually nothing of the sort — just bounty jumper who donned the blue uniform to collect a cash reward for joining up, and then deserted at the first opportunity. Given the state’s primitive tools in the 1860s for monitoring individual citizens or verifying identity, many bounty jumpers simply repeated the enlistment-desertion cycle several times.

Being shot as a deserter was one of the occupational hazards — a small one, but a real one. But being shot as a spy? Well, General Sheridan was on the lookout.

These deserters on their way out of camp happened to bump into a patrol of “Confederates”: actually a Union detail Sheridan had uniformed like the enemy for sneaky reconnaissance. What ensued next was your basic comedy of mistaken identity … with a double execution at the end.

The following is a newspaper dispatch filed a few day later by one of their fellow soldiers writing under the pen name “Manatom” for the Newark Daily Advertiser; it comes from New Jersey Butterfly Boys in the Civil War: The Hussars of the Union Army

Henry Recli [sic] of Co. L and Christian A. Gross, alias Charles King of the same Company, a German by birth, left the regiment while at the present camp. A party of scouts led by Major [Young] of Gen. Sheridan’s staff, at their head, dressed in rebel uniforms met these men up the valley, a number of miles outside the picket lines. As they conversed with them, the deserters supposing them to be genuine rebels, gave them the contraband information, and stated that they had been trying to desert for some time. They assented to a proposal to exchange clothing, and then were arrested.

I am informed by Chaplain John L. Frazee, whose trying duty it was to be with the condemned during their last hours, that both persisted in their innocence to the last. When told by the Provost Marshall Lee, that they were to die at noon, they said they knew that the night before, when they were in Winchester, at which place Gross, who had always signed his name as Charles King, wrote a letter to friends in Philadelphia, signed Christian A. Gross, in which he expressed his doubts of the carrying out of the sentence. The chaplain believes this idea deceived them until the last moment, although they yielded a sort of mechanical compliance with the solemn services held with them in private, and kneeled in prayer before being taken from prison.

Private Friederich Jaeckel’s drawing in his diary of the two deserters, again via New Jersey Butterfly Boys. Though that book’s caption places this on January 6, 1864, context suggests this must in fact be our 1865 incident; there is no indication I can find of an executed pair in the army dating to exactly one year before.

The details of the execution of this kind are terribly formal and impressive. Fully three thousand cavalrymen were drawn upon three sides of a square upon a gentle slope a little way from headquarters. Each regimental and brigade staff was with its organization and centrally stationed was Gen. Custer and his staff and body guard. When the Division was arranged, Provost Marshall Lee gave orders that the condemned should be brought forth, and thoroughly unused as I was to seeing death in that shape, the memories clustering about that slow moving group, seem as if burned in my brain.

The Provost Marshall, preceded by the band, with a small body guard, led — then the firing party, made up of twelve picked men from our own regiment. A large open wagon, drawn by four white horses, came next — in which there were two coffins, upon each of which sat a doomed man riding backwards, with feet ironed and hands tied behind. Each had a long white scarf about the head. Besides these rode the Chaplain and a proper guard dismounted closed the rear.

The fine brigade band, which had marched in silence until near the Division, when the first side of the square was reached, began playing a Dead March, and thus did this little group march slowly around inside the whole army, and at last halt at an open grave — dug in the center.

The men were now lifted from the wagon, the Coffins duly placed, and the men seated as before facing the whole Division. Marshall Lee then, from his horse, read the order and warrant … brief religious services were held, the Chaplain reading a portion of the burial service, and offering prayer for the condemned. Neither had anything to say, and the Chaplain retired a few paces. The faces of the men were then covered, and the firing party quickly drawn up in line with pieces previously carefully loaded and placed in their hands. One of the twelve had, by a merciful regulation in the Articles of War, a blank cartridge, and each comrade had the hope that he should send no fatal ball.

More rapidly than I can trace this account was the preparation done. Ten paces off stood the line — each man sternly appreciative of his fearful duty.

“Attention” Ready! Aim! Fire! The report was almost as if one carbine had responded. Two bodies fallen backwards and dead were all that remained of Recli and Gross. The surgeon in a few moments pronounced life extinct; and the scene closed by marching the whole body of troops past their Coffins, lying as they fell — this most solemn warning one can imagine to the soldier — to be faithful to himself, his oath and his Country. MANATOM

* Abraham Lincoln’s hilarious description of the 1.65-meter (5′ 5″) “Little Phil”: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

General Sheridan

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2008: Christopher Scott Emmett, jocund

1 comment July 24th, 2014 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)

“Tell my family and friends I love them, tell the governor he just lost my vote. Y’all hurry this along, I’m dying to get out of here.”

— Christopher Scott Emmett, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Virginia.
Executed July 24, 2008

The Washington Post reported: “Emmett fatally beat his roofing company co-worker, John F. Langley, with a brass lamp in a Danville, Va., motel room in 2001. He then stole Langley’s money to buy crack.” He later lost an appeal in Virginia claiming that the state’s lethal injection protocol constituted “cruel and unusual” punishment.

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1778: Josiah Phillips, attainted by Thomas Jefferson

Add comment December 4th, 2013 Headsman

There is one example of this violation in Virginia, of a most striking and shocking nature; an example so horrid, that if I conceived my country would passively permit a repetition of it, dear as it is to me, I should seek means of expatriating myself from it. A man, who was then a citizen, was deprived of his life thus: From a mere reliance on general reports, a gentleman in the house of delegates informed the house, that a certain man had committed several crimes, and was running at large perpetrating other crimes; he, therefore, moved for leave to attaint him; he obtained that leave instantly … Without being confronted with his accusers and witnesses, without the privilege of calling for evidence in his behalf, he was sentenced to death, and was afterwards actually executed. Was this arbitrary deprivation of life, the dearest gift of God to man, consistent with the genius of a republican government? Is this compatible with the spirit of freedom? This, sir, has made the deepest impression in my heart, and I cannot contemplate it without horror.

-Edmund Randolph (Source)

On this date in 1778, attainted Revolutionary War-era outlaw Josiah Phillips was hanged in Virginia.

Contrary to Randolph’s recollection, the execution took place according to a regular jury verdict convicting Philips for stealing 28 hats and five pounds of twine — felony theft by the Bloody Code inherited from England.

Even so, it was the Act of Attainder voted unanimously by the Virginia legislature that stuck in the popular memory, so much so that even the likes of Randolph, a lawyer by trade and later the first Attorney General of the independent United States, misstated* it as the proximate cause of Phillips’s execution.

Another inheritance from the mother country, Acts of Attainder — wherein the legislature declares some party guilty of a crime and declares punishment without benefit of trial — were going right out of style in the twilight of the 18th century. The eventual U.S. Constitution would flatly abolish the practice; Britain herself has not enacted one since 1798.

So it comes as some surprise to see that Phillips was outlawed** at the instigation of no less a person than old Mr. Inalienable Rights himself, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Bill of Attainder gave Philips and his band a June 1778 deadline to turn themselves in voluntarily, or else they

shall stand and be convicted and attainted of high treason, and shall suffer the pains of death, and incur all forfeitures, penalties and disabilities prescribed by the law against those convicted and attainted of High-treason: and that execution of this sentence of attainder shall be done by order of the General court to be entered as soon as may be conveniently after notice that any of the said offenders are in custody of the keeper of the public gaol …

And that the good people of this commonwealth may not in the mean time be subject to the unrestrained hostilities of the said insurgents, be it further enacted that from and after the passing of this act it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates at any time.

Now in fairness, Josiah Phillips was no ordinary hat-thief, regardless of what the charge-sheet read. He was a Tory marauder who led a gang of outlaws/guerrillas/terrorists who lurked in the Dismal Swamp and had just weeks before repelled a Commonwealth militia dispatched by Governor Patrick Henry.

For Henry, who sought the attainder, and for Jefferson the Phillips band looked like a clear security threat. “The delays which would attend the proceeding to outlaw the said offenders according to the usual forms and procedures of the courts of law would leave the said good people for a long time exposed to murder and devastation,” in the words of the attainder. And indeed, the rebellious colonies — ultra-patriotic Pennsylvania especially — had had regular recourse to Acts of Attainder against Tory loyalists over the span of the American Revolution. (Actual executions under attainders were extremely rare.)

However, the inconsistency of such an instrument long associated with monarchical tyranny with its author’s more usual Rights of Man fulminations had Jefferson still defending the Phillips attainder as late as 1815.

Whatever might have best suited Josiah Phillips, the last word on the matter in American jurisprudence has belonged to the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow-Founders … like James Madison, whose Federalist no. 44 flatly avers that Bills of Attainder “are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”

* Randolph himself, as Virginia’s attorney general, made the call not to use the attainder against Phillips because of Randolph’s own discomfort with it. But his “misremembering” was convenient to a later interest in excoriating Patrick Henry.

** Arguably contravening Virginia’s existing 1776 Declaration of Rights. “In all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

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