Posts filed under 'Virginia'

1733: Champion and Valentine, slaves

Add comment June 27th, 2017 Headsman

Today’s tale from colonial Virginia’s slave power arrives via A Documentary History of Slavery in North America.

The Espy file gives June 29 for these executions, but the Wednesday of that week in 1733 (as designated in the court sentence) was June 27.


At a Court called for Goochland County the twenty-fifth day of June MDCCXXXIII, for the tryall of Champion a Negro man slave, Lucy, a Negro woman slave, both belonging to Hutchins Burton, Sampson, Harry, & George, three Negro men slaves belonging to William Randolph, Esq’r, & Valentine, a negro man slave belonging to Bowler Cocke gent.

A commission from the Hon’ble William Gooch Esq’r His Majesty’s Lieut Governor & Commander in chief of this Dominion to John Fleming, Tarlton Fleming, Allen Howard, Edward Scott, George Payne, William Cabbell, James Holman, Ishman Randolph, James Skelton, George Raine, & Anthony Hoggatt, gent to be Justices of Oyer and Terminer for the tryall of Champion a Negro man slave, Lucy a Negro woman slave both belonging to Hutchins Burgon, Sampson, Harry, & George, three Negro men slaves belonging to William Randolph Esq’e & Valentine a Negro man slave belonging to Bowler Cocke gent. being read as also the Dedimus for administering the Oaths & Test therein mentioned George Payne & Anthony Hoggatt gent. administer the oaths appointed by Act of Parliament to be taken instead of the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy the Oath appointed to be taken by an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of his late Majesty King George the first Entitled An Act for the further security of his Majesty’s person and Government and the Succession of the Crown in the Heirs of the late Princess Sophia being Protestants and for extinguishing the hopes of the pretended Prince of Wales and his open & secret abettors, unto John Fleming & Daniel Stoner, gent. who Subscribe the Test take the Oath for duly executing the Office of a Commissioner of Oyer and Terminer, and then administer the said Oaths & Test unto Tarlton Fleming, George Payne, James Skelton & Anthony Hoggatt, gent.

Champion being brought to the Barr an Indictment against him for feloniously murdering Robert Allen of this County is read the prisoner confesses himself guilty of the said murder and it is thereupon considered by the court that he return to the place from whence he came and from thence to the place of Execution there to be hanged by the neck on Wednesday next between the hours of eleven and two till he be dead. The Court value the said Negro at thirty pounds Curr’t money.

George, Sampson & Harry, being brought to the Barr several Indictments against them for feloniously murdering Robert Allen of this County are read the prisoners plead not guilty whereupon the Witnesses & the prisoners defence being heard it is the opinion of the Court that they are not guilty and they are thereupon acquitted.

Valentine being brought to the Barr an Indictment against him for feloniously murdering Robert Allen of this County is read the prisoner pleads not guilty whereupon the Witnesses & the prisoners defence being heard it is the opinion of the Court that he is guilty and it is considered that he return to the place from whence he came and from thence to the place of Execution there to be hanged by the neck on Wednesday next between the hours of eleven & two till he be dead. The Court value the said Negro at forty pounds Curr’t money.

Lucy being brought to the Barr an Indictment against her for feloniously murdering Robert Allen of this County is read the prisoner pleads not guilty and whereupon the Witnesses and the prisoners defence being heard it is the opinion of the Court that she is not guilty of the murder but upon Consideration that she is supposed to have known of the murder after it was committed & did not discover the same it is Ordered that she receive on her bare back twenty one lashes well laid on at the Com[m]on whipping post & that she be then discharged.


It was then “Ordered that the heads & quarters of Champion & Valentine be set up in severall parts of this County.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia

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1886: A day in the death penalty around the U.S. South

Add comment June 4th, 2017 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1886.


Execution of Alfred Taylor at Opelousas.

Opelousas, La., June 4. — [Special.] — In accordance with Gov. McEnery‘s proclamation, Alfred Taylor, colored, was executed at 1:30 o’clock, P.M., to-day, by Sheriff Duson, the condemned man dying of strangulation about fifteen minutes after the springing of the trap.

He preserved a very firm and unconcerned mien until he saw the gallows, not seeming to realize or to believe that he would be hanged. He protested his innocence of the crime to the last. Once when the supreme moment arrived, he lost his usual stolidity and called on God to have mercy upon him and begging [sic] the Sheriff not to hang him.

Taylor was 23 years years old, griff in color, of medium height and weighing about 145 pounds. He was tried at the March term of our District Court, and the jury was composed of nine white and three colored men. He was defended by able counsel, and after an impartial trial was found guilty as charged on the indictment.

On Monday, Feb. 8, 1886, at about 11 o’clock in the morning, Taylor called at the residence of Mrs. Latreuille, a white lady, residing on the old Dr. Moore place, near Moundville, some four miles above Washington, and asked if her husband was at home. Not suspecting anything wrong, she replied that he was not. The negro then told her that some one was trying to steal her chickens in the woods near by and that she had better see about it.

The unfortunate woman went to the place to look after her fowls, when the negro followed her, and drawing a pistol threatened to shoot her if she made any outcry. She fainted away through fright, when he accomplished his diabolical purpose. He fled, and a posse was immediately organized and began searching for him. Had he been caught then he would undoubtedly have been lynched. He evaded arrest, however, until the week before his trial and conviction. The evidence adduced at the trial was crushing, and the jury promptly returned a verdict as above.

Since his conviction he has manifested no sighs of contrition, but, on the contrary, has always affected the most stoical indifference, and constantly indulged in the most revolting profanity.


A Double Execution.

Winchester, Va., June 4. — Wes Honesty and Tabby Banks were hanged at 9:22 A.M., for the murder on the night of Nov. 14, 1884, of Joseph McFaul, a youth of 18 years. A large Democratic procession took place here on that night, and the prisoners walked through the streets making threats that they would crack the skull of some Democrat before morning.

McFaul was a slightly built, peaceable young man, while Honesty and Banks were powerfully grown negroes.

They waylaid McFaul at the mouth of an ally on Main street. He had nothing with which to protect himself but a light walking stick. The negroes pressed upon him and he ran from them, ordering them to keep away. They then rushed upon him. Honesty collared him and pushed him against a house at the mouth of the alley, and Banks cried out, “stick it to him.”

McFaul defended himself as best he could with his walking-stick. Honesty was facing McFaul, and Banks got behind him. Honesty drew back and hurled a rock at McFaul, striking him in the left temple. As he reeled and staggered across the street Banks struck him with some weapon he held in his hands. McFaul went to his boarding-house, and was found dead in his bed next morning, with his skull crushed.

As the criminals marched to the scaffold Banks began to tremble violently, but Honesty stood firm on the trap. The Moody hymn, “There is a Light in the Valley,” was sung by request, both joining in loudly.

Honesty said: “I thank God I am converted. I am going to heaven. No man’s blood rests on my soul. I have not to answer for it. I thank all the officers and ministers for their kindness.”

Banks said I am not guilty of what is put on me. I want to meet all my friends in heaven.

Their arms were then pinioned, the black cap drawn over their heads, and in a loud voice, both cried out “good-bye,” “good-bye.” The trap was then sprung.


John Davis Hanged in Assumption.

Napoleonville, La. — [Special.] — At 12:30 o’clock to-day a colored man, named John Davis, was hung at Napoleonville for the murder of his wife, two years ago, on the Jones plantation, three miles above the town. He confessed the crime, and said he was willing to die for what he had done. The execution was without incident.


Launched from Lebanon.

Lebanon, Tenn., June 4. — Jim Baxter, colored, was hanged at 11:32 this morning. His last utterances were: “I did not kill Mrs. Lane. Dat’s the God’s truth.” His neck was not broken. He was dead in fifteen minutes.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Louisiana,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Tennessee,USA,Virginia

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1775: William Pitman, for murdering his slave

Add comment May 12th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1775,* plantation owner William Pitman was hanged for murder in King George County, Virginia.

Pitman had a reputation as a brutal man and was no stranger to the Virginia courts; he had been making appearances since the 1750s. So perhaps it was not surprising that he got strung up eventually.

Virginia Gazette, Apr. 21, 1775

What is surprising, indeed perhaps unprecedented, is that the murder victim was one of his own slaves.

The Virginia Gazette, which published the sole surviving account of the incident, says that Pitman, “in liquor” and “in the heat of passion” lost his temper, “tied his poor negro boy by his neck and heels,” and beat him with a large grapevine before stomping him to death.

Pitman can hardly have been the first, or the last, slaveowner to slaughter his own “property” but it was usually impossible to get a conviction because blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court. In this case, however, two white people — Pitman’s own son and daughter — sealed the case by giving evidence against their father.

The Gazette, writing on April 21, said Pitman had “justly incurred the penalties of the law” and said hopefully that the story might be “a warning to others to treat their slaves with moderation, and not give way to unruly passions, that my bring them to an ignominious death, and involve their families in their unhappy fate.”

* Pitman’s hanging “yesterday” is reported in the Saturday, May 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette — a different Virginia Gazette from the one quoted in this post, as it happens: three competing papers used this same branding; the report in this post’s body on the circumstances of Pitman’s conviction comes from Dixon and Hunter’s Gazette, while the May 13 item establishing the hanging date is from Alexander Purdie’s Gazette.

Purdie’s May 13 edition further adds that when the sheriff came to fetch him on the fatal day, “Pitman made some resistance, but was soon overpowered; he behaved with decency at the place of execution, and attributed his unhappy fate to the effect of intemperate drinking.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA,Virginia

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1902: Joe Higginbotham, criminal assailant

Add comment February 24th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1902, Joe Higginbotham was hanged for raping and slashing the throat of a Mrs. Ralph Webber.

The State (Columbia, S.C.), Jan. 24, 1902

This headline-making outrage occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the town was on the verge of living up to its name before officers spirited the black janitor away to Roanoke for safekeeping; in Roanoke, military guardsmen were scrambled for security against a rumor that Higginbotham’s life would be attempted even there.

One might well wonder why the bother, as the formal proceedings against the culprit blessed by the law entailed very little deliberation beyond Judge Lynch. Mrs. Webber survived her injury and once her condition stabilized, she was brought to the jail on January 21 to make an identification. “She at once identified him as the man who assaulted her. The negro broke down and confessed to the crime with which he is charged, and further stated that he had attempted some months ago to assault a white girl who was a patient in a Lynchburg hospital.” (Charlotte Observer, Jan. 22, 1902)

Two days after that meeting, Higginbotham pleaded guilty at a short trial under heavy guard back in Lynchburg. The sentence was imposed for exactly one month out — plus one more day so as not to fall on a Sunday — and it went off as scheduled, undisturbed by any appeal or reprieve.

The Higginbotham name will be distinctive to students of 20th century American law, as it was borne by Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, one of the greatest jurists never to reach the Supreme Court.* (Higginbotham was reportedly considered for the seat Thurgood Marshall eventually received.) Since it appears from this message board that Higginbotham descendants in the Lynchburg and Amherst County part of Virginia count the judge among their kin, we couldn’t help but wonder whether, like radio host Tom Joyner discovered, there might be an execution hidden in the family tree.

Resident genealogist and occasional guest poster Golde Singer did some research on this proposition.

Judge Higginbotham grew up in New Jersey but census records confirm that his father Aloysius was in fact born in Virginia to a family with deep roots in Amherst County. Aloysius’s move to the Trenton, N.J. area in the first decade of the 20th century would have put him on the leading edge of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities.

Suggestive as that might be, Golde’s search through Aloysius’s family did not appear to turn up any clear link to a Joseph Higginbotham; indeed, Higginbotham the criminal assailant was reportedly himself an adopted or foster child whose lineage appears obscure. The trail from this point dissipates in history’s marshes. The Higginbotham name is quite widespread in the Lynchburg area; family ancestries for the African-American Higginbothams appear to trace back to slavery among the white family of Captain John Higginbotham, a Revolutionary War officer whose own father relocated to Amherst, Va. from Barbados. (Different English Higginbothams made good in India.)

A generalist site such as ours leaves off short of the close reading of archival records or research into family lore that would required here. (Perhaps there are some readers prepared to shed some light?) In the end, of course, any hypothetical family connection between these two very different men would count as little more than historical curiosity.

* Full disclosure: this author never had the privilege of meeting Judge Higginbotham, but counts as a mentor to his death penalty interest one of the judge’s proteges.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Virginia

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1984: Linwood Briley, terror of Richmond

Add comment October 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the eldest of Richmond’s still-notorious spree-killing Briley brothers went to Virginia’s electric hair.

Though they came from a respected and stable family, the Briley youths turned out to be such terrifyingly bad seeds that their father, James Sr., eventually kept his own bedroom door padlocked against them.

Our man Linwood Briley was the calculating leader, and the first of the Brileys to taste blood when he senselessly shot a 57-year-old neighbor hanging laundry in her backyard in 1971. As the shooter was only 16 at the time, he did a brief turn in reform school and returned to Richmond neither rehabilitated nor deterred.

In 1979, Linwood led his younger brothers James Jr. (J.B.) and Anthony on a seven-month rampage with a friend named Duncan Meekins. (Meekins would wisely turn state’s evidence against his accomplices.)

On March 12 of that year, Linwood and Anthony knocked on a door in Henrico County, pleading car trouble. No sooner did William and Virginia Bucher admit them then the Brileys trussed up the good samaritans, ransacked their house for valuables, and tossed a farewell match into the gasoline trails they had run through the rooms.

The Buchers managed to slip their bonds and escape their pyre, but few who met the Brileys in the weeks to come would be so fortunate.

Their attacks were marked by violent ferocity that terrified Richmonders, even though they were often driven by pecuniary motives.

In one killing, the murder that technically earned Linwood Briley his death sentence, the gang lay in wait in an alley behind a nightclub and randomly snatched the first person who stepped out for a breath of fresh air. That turned out to be the DJ, John Gallaher, who was forced into the trunk of his own car, driven to an abandoned factory on Mayo Island, and executed.

Two weeks later, they cornered a 62-year-old nurse at the door of her apartment and battered her to death with a baseball bat before they looted the apartment. Another victim was found with scissors and a fork still sticking out of his lifeless back; one man whom the Brileys suspected of trying to steal their car had his brains dashed out with a falling cinderblock while pinned screaming to the pavement.

Their last victim was a neighbor who had drawn their attention by nervously locking up his house when he saw the Briley gang. The young men intimidated him into opening up for him, raped his wife, and shot the lot, not excluding their five-year-old son.

The Brileys weren’t done alarming Virginians even after their death sentence: on May 31, 1984 — just a few months before Linwood’s electrocution — Linwood and James led a death row breakout and were on the loose for three more weeks, hiding out with an uncle before recapture.

James Briley, Jr. followed his brother to the electric chair on April 8, 1985. As of this writing, Anthony Briley remains incarcerated, as does Duncan Meekins.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA,Virginia

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1793: The slave Nell

Add comment October 4th, 2016 Headsman

Original from the Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Otner Manuscripts:

Champion Travis to the Governor

Sir:

Enclosed is a statement of the evidence which appeared against Daphne and Nell, two negroes convicted for the murder of Joel Garthright, which would have been sent sooner had the Attorney been in Town.

And am,
Your humble servant.


The evidence against Daphne and Nelly, two Slaves belonging to Col. Champion Travis, who were tried and convicted by the court of James City County in the month of June, for the murder of Joel Gathright, Col. Travis’s overseer, as well as my memory enables me to state it, was in substance follows:

It was proved in plain and positive terms by two negro boys, who were present and saw the greater part of the transaction, that Daphne and Nelly, the two criminals now under condemnation, were at work with ploughs on the day on which the overseer was killed, and the boys themselves leading the oxen to the ploughs.

Gathright, the overseer, came at his usual time to the field where these women were working, and blamed Nelly for suffering the fence to be left open, which had exposed the corn growing to be cropped by the sheep.

Nelly denied the charge and used some impertinent language, which provoked the overseer to strike her. This he did repeatedly with a small cane, till Nelly quitted her plough and ran; the overseer pursued and struck her on the ground after she had fallen.

Nelly recovered from her fall, and immediately engaged him. The woman Daphne, who was at a small distance off, as soon as she saw Nelly closely fighting with the overseer, ran to the place where they were engaged, and together they seized and threw him to the ground. They beat him on the ground with their fists and switches with great fury a considerable time.

The overseer made frequent efforts to raise himself up and get from them in vain, and demanded to know if they intended to kill him.

At length he ordered one of the boys, the witness, to go to a remote part of the field where the negro men were at work, and call one of them to his assistance; after some time, he sent the other boy.

The boys executed their orders, and soon returned to the place they had left; when they returned, the women, Daphne and Nelly, had fled, and an old negro man belonging to Col. Travis assisted to raise the overseer from the ground, who soon after expired.

It was proved by an old negro man, who kept a mill in the neighborhood of Col. Travis’s plantation, that these two women, Daphne and Nelly, in the afternoon of the same day on which they killed the overseer, passed the mill on their way to Williamsburg; and being asked by the old fellow where they were going, and what was the matter — seeing some disorder in their appearances, they replied that they had whipped their overseer, and were going to town to their master.

They were urged by the miller to go on, lest the overseer should overtake them; they observed that they had left him unable to move, and Daphne asked the old man if a woman could be hanged for killing a man.

Several white men who came to the place shortly after the scene was closed, and who were Jurors in the inquest held on his body, proved the violence committed on the body, and a fracture of the skull, which they imagined was made by a stone found a few feet from the head of the unfortunate man.

The Criminals, Daphne and Nelly, were tried separately, and the boys closely and rigidly examined; on each trial they delivered the same clear and unequivocal testimony. The criminals were undefended, but asked themselves many questions of the witnesses, which, as well as I remember, were answered strongly against them.

Ro. Sanders.
Attorney for James City County
July 26, 1793

Elsewhere in antebellum human chattelry: this from the Columbian Gazetteer, Oct. 28, 1793.

The full court record ensues in these same papers, demonstrating the same circumstances. Daphne was duly hanged on July 19, but “it being suggested to the court that the said Nelly is quick and big with child, it is commanded the Sheriff of this county that he cause execution of the above Judgement to be done on Friday the fourth day of October next. The Court also valued the said Nelly at fifty pounds Current money.”

(The timeline here implies that Nelly would have been about six to seven months pregnant when overseer Gathright began thrashing her for leaving the fence gate ajar.)

Nelly’s fate moved enough tender-hearted white neighbors to petition for her reprieve, a petition that was rebutted by a furious confutation with vastly more numerous signatories noting that “not a single circumstance appeared in alleviation of the horrid offence.” Can’t think of a one!

At any rate,

She has been delivered of her child some weeks, and now awaits the Execution of her sentence. We have heard with great emotion and concern that much Industry has been exerted to get signatures to a petition to your Excellency and the Hon’ble Board of Council to obtain a Pardon for the said negro woman, Nell; when we consider the alarming commotions which have lately existed among the negroes in this neighborhood, and the dangerous example of such a murder, we humbly conceive it necessary for the public peace that the course of the law should have its full effect in this instance.

And it did.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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1858: Preston Turley, drunkard preacher

Add comment September 17th, 2016 Headsman

The city of Charleston, Virginia — soon to become Charleston, West Virginia — hosted the unctuously ceremonious public hanging of a killer preacher on this date in 1858.

Perhaps your correspondent is merely cynical having seen in these pages a thousand small-minded murderers lay their misdeeds to liquor and claim their redemptive shortcut to heaven. After all, hypocrisies great and small light each one of us through our days; Preston Turley no less than any man is surely entitled to his.

But we do incline with the fellow in the posse who arrested Turley after his missing wife Mary Susan was discovered at the bottom of a river, a rope fixing her neck to a stone and bludgeon bruises visible about her head, who had this exchange with Mr. Turley:

Turley: Whisky has brought me to this.

Mr. Webb: Don’t lay it all to whisky, as a man might have a deed in his breast, but not the courage to perform it, until he drank whisky.

Turley: That is about the fact.

Betweentimes Turley had posted a phony reward for his “missing” wife, slated her for unfaithfulness by way of palliating his crime, and briefly escaped his cell a few weeks before the execution. All of this is no more than any murderer might do to avoid the terrors of execution, but also does seem a bit difficult to square with the lamblike sacrificial Turley who presented on the scaffold September 17, preaching his last sermon to a throng five thousand strong or larger. Turley on this occasion was able to report that he had but a few days prior undergone a third and this time definitive conversion and that now, now, he had conquered death in Christ and become entitled to harangue the crowd and lead it in hymns. (And also that whisky was still the culprit.) He even got the murdered woman’s brothers to come out of the crowd and give him a tearful parting; “the whole scene was more that of an excited protracted [revival] meeting, than that of an execution.” If nothing else we have a compelling instance of the continuation of that ancient spirit of public execution reconciling the criminal to his community through his sacrifice.

We’ve been quoting from one of those books someone churned out to monetize all that pathos, suitably entitled “The trial, conviction, sentence, confession, and execution of Preston S. Turley: for the murder of his wife, Mary Susan Turley, in Kanawha County, Virginia.” We present it here for whomever might judge Turley’s character:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,USA,Virginia,West Virginia

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1876: Hillary Page, the Chesterfield fire fiend

Add comment September 1st, 2016 Headsman

Hillary Page, “the Chesterfield fire fiend”, went to Virginia’s gallows on this date in 1876.

Born a slave, Page by 1874 was a mere servant at the Ruffin family’s “Summer Hill” estate off the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. He had lived there all his life. That year, a series of attempted arsons ravaged the area, including one that devastated Summer Hill.

Eventually, a black youth named Wesley betrayed Page as their author, though contemporaries thought the spree, which claimed no fatalities, arose less from viciousness than simpleminded pyromania.

“The Richmond correspondent of the Petersburg Index” (as quoted by the Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 7, 1876), ventured a bit of compassion for the young man.

I think he ought to be sent to the penitentiary for life [rather than hanged]. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go at liberty, and justice wil be satisfied without taking his life. He is only 19 or 20; he lived on the place with his mother and father, and had no great malice in his misdeeds. He merely kindled the fire to see it burning. Sometimes he was the first to give the alarm; he always helped to put it out. He either did the firing to see the houses burn, or compel his parents to remove to Richmond, which he desired and they refused to do. A few years ago a young lady, who was being educated at a Richmond boarding school, fired the house a dozen times. Once it came near burning down. It was said she had a mania on the subject. Nobody is so charitable to Hillary.

Perhaps there was a bit of charity after all in the air, for it took an inordinate (for the time) 19 months for the case to proceed from arrest to gallows: Page’s first death sentence was overturned on appeal and his eventual hanging-date was pushed back by the governor so that the condemned could be examined for lunacy.

By the end of it the fire fiend was quite a celebrity. At a stopover in the courthouse jail en route to a gallows,* Page was besieged by journalists shouting questions at him until his ministers arrived and shooed them away.

“Hillary, do you feel any better prepared to die than you did yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. I feel a heap better.”

“Do you acknowledge yourself guilty of everything that has been charged against you?”

“Yes, sir, all but one thing, and that is young Mr. Ruffin’s house. I didn’t burn that. It caught fire by itself. I didn’t burn that.”

“Hillary, why did you say that Colonel Ruffin and his son came to you and desired you to make statements implicating other parties?”

“All that was false. I just said so because I thought it would do me good. I was put up to it. It’s natural that I should try to save my life.”

(Source: Richmond Dispatch report in the very topical Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907)

The road, our correspondent noted, “was lined with vehicles of all descriptions” for “it seemed that all the whites and blacks of the county were going to witness the saddest act of a poor unfortunate career.”

* “It was by a general verdict accorded to be as mean a scaffold as was ever erected for the execution of a human being,” the Dispatch reported (again, via Ward’s Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia). “The sheriff of the county was even more nervous than the condemned.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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1827: Three Spanish pirates in Richmond, states’ rights cause

1 comment August 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1827, a “Carnival of Death” in Richmond saw the hanging of three Spanish pirates who had but recently perpetrated an infamous slaughter all their own.

These men had shipped aboard the brig Crawford out of Matanzas, Cuba. The Crawford was bound for New York, but these Spaniards and a French-born American with the unfortunate name Tardy had a different idea: they had brought aboard a set of Spanish papers for the vessel that would show her under their command, sailing for Hamburg.

One night on the seas, the four rose up and murdered most of the rest of the crew. A cook and a French passenger were spared, as was the mate Edmund Dobson who convinced the hijackers that he could be of service navigating their prize.

The ship’s original papers vanished into the waves, along with Captain Henry Brightman of Troy, Mass., and eight other crew and passengers whose deaths make pitiable reading. Oliver Potter scampered up a mast to escape the mutineers, but having been gashed by their blades he eventually became “exhausted by the loss of his blood, [and] fell to the deck and expired.” Two other men lept overboard and begged for their tormenters to allow them some piece of debris that would keep them afloat, “but the demons regarded [them] not.” (both quotes from the North Carolina Sentinel, June 30, 1827).

It would afterward emerge that Alexander Tardy was a veteran terror of the Atlantic lanes, and had been in the words of a Philadelphia Gazette report widely reprinted around the republic

many years on our coast, and in our cities, planning and executing his black and hellish deeds with all the coolness of a demon, and after having been suffered by the mildness of our laws to escape the gallows, and repeat his murders, when in many other Christian countries he would long since have hung in gibbets … his early execution would have saved hundreds of lives, and certainly the eight lives on board the brig Crawford.

“Hundreds” seems quite a bit on the exaggerated side, but by accounts Tardy had committed several seaborne murders and escaped from hard prison time in Virginia and South Carolina.

The Gazette gives us sneaky murders by poison, rather than slaughterous main-force ship seizures, and it appears that for all his accomplishments in the field of homicide, Tardy seems to have rarely or never actually managed to commandeer a prize: perhaps this was the margin that kept him off the gibbets all those years.

He was not destined for the gallows in this instance, either.

Since our quartet purposed to reroute the Crawford from a run up the coast to a cross-Atlantic voyage, they needed to augment her provisions. To this effect, at the suggestion of the heroic and unusually persuasive mate Dobson,* the Crawford put in at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia capes. There, Dobson was able to slip the pirates and row to shore. By the time he returned with authorities, the Spaniards had put ashore in a vain attempt to flee, while Tardy had cut his own throat.

It was the eventual understanding of the federal (not Virginia) court that tried them before a standing-room crowd that the Galician Felix Barbeto was Tardy’s equal in the plot, and that Barbeto and Tardy had hired the other two Spaniards: Couro (aka Jose Morando) and Pepe (aka Jose Hilario Casaris) both addressed their comrade as “Don Felix”.

Hanging in chains having fallen well out of favor by this date, Tardy “was buried at the low water mark near Old Point Comfort, with his face downward, and every mark of ignominy.” (Alexandria Gazette, July 24, 1827) A few hours later, someone thought to obtain his specimen for the quack science of the day and “he was disinterred, his head taken off, and dispatched to Baltimore, for the inspection of the Galls and Spurzheims of that city. They will probably find the organ of distructiveness [sic], finely developed.”

This was not the last of the Frankenstein stuff, either in medicine or in law. After the Spanish were conducted through Richmond to a public gallows before a vast throng of curious Virginians,* their three corpses were given over to the mania for galvanic experimentation.

“I happened to be in Richmond the day on which the Pirates were hung,” an anonymous correspondent wrote to the National Intelligencer a few days later.

In an attempt to obtain their bodies for galvanic experiments, &c. a very ludicrous evidence was given of the mania prevailing about State rights. Doct. — who had prepared the galvanic battery, was unapprised that the act of Congress, relative to criminals, authorised the court in certain cases, to consign the bodies for dissection; he, of course, omitted to make the necessary application for the Pirates. But, on the day of execution, finding that the Marshall had no authority to permit the bodies to be taken from the gallows before interment, the Doctor was advised to apply to Governor Giles for permission to take them. He concluded to do so, and knowing there was some difficulty in the case, deemed it advisable to approach his Excellency delicately, and if practicable, get him mounted on his hobby. To that end the Doctor broached the subject of State Rights, and suggested a doubt whether the authority of the Federal Court extended to the right of burying. The Governor caught at the idea, and, without hesitation, told the Doctor that there was no doubt in his mind but that, without permission of the State authority, the Marshal, acting under the authority of the Union, had no right to turn an inch of the soil; he therefore saw no difficulty in the Doctor’s taking possession of the bodies the moment they were cut from the gallows. — This the Doctor felt as sufficient authority, and proceeded to the place of execution.

* The ropes hanging Pepe and Couro broke.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA,Virginia

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1875: Jesse Fouks, for murdering the Herndon family

Add comment March 19th, 2016 Headsman


Sunderland (U.K.) Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, April 6, 1875.

A despatch from Brentville, Prince William County, Va., dated March 19, says: —

Jesse Fouks, the negro who murdered the Herndon family, consisting of Jeremiah Herndon, his wife, and a coloured boy named Addison Russell, near Cedar Run, in the lower part of this county, on the 4th of last December, was hanged this morning.

The circumstances of this murder were very horrible. Mr. Herndon, a well-to-do farmer, was about 70 years of age, his wife was a few years younger, and the coloured boy about 18 years old.

On the morning after the murder, Mr. Summerfield Herndon, a son of the venerable couple, who resided not far from their farm, went to pay a visit to his parents. Entering their yard, he saw bloody footprints, which led to the door of the dwelling. Passing into the house, a ghastly spectacle was presented to his view. Upon a pallet on the floor the coloured boy Russell lay cold in death, with his head split open. Upon the bed lay Mrs. Herndon, weltering in blood. A little later Mr. Herndon was found lying in a field about 400 yards from the house, barefooted and bareheaded, with his head and face cut and bleeding in many places.

On being asked who had done this deed, Mr. Herndon, who seemed bewildered, said he did not know who had done it; that he had been walking about all night, and felt cold when he went into the water.

He was taken to his house, and there told a clearer story to Justices Horton and Woodyard of a quarrel with Jesse Fouks, who had been hauling wood for him.

It was ascertained, on searching the house, that 235 dols. had been taken by the murderer. Fouks was arrested on suspicion at the house of a neighbour the day after the murder.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Herndon lingered some days, Mrs. Herndon dying on the Wednesday following, and Mr. Herndon on the succeeding Friday. Fouks was tried, found guilty, and duly sentenced to be hanged.

On the 31st of last January he made an attempt to escape from gaol. He burned a hole through the partition of his cell, and got out into the passage, where there was nothing to prevent his escape except an iron-grated door, which was unlocked, and the outer door.

On his appearance at the outer door, he was met by the gaoler’s wife, who, with great presence of mind, seized him and called for help, but he managed to get free and got away.

He was captured on the following day in a straw rick, about six miles from Brentsville.

He acknowledged his guilt, and said that on the evening of the murder he took some meat, and that Mr. Herndon threatened to prosecute him; that he went into the house to try to induce the old man not to prosecute him; that he refused to retract, and that they then began quarrelling, and Mr. Herndon took up the axe and threatened to knock his brains out.

Fouks retreated to the door (the door being open), seized the axe handle, and to use his own words, “Old Satan was in me. I struck Mr. Herndon; took da axe from him, and den struck de old woman twice wid de axe. I did’nt strike her wid nuffin else, and den I struck Add (the coloured boy) twice wid de axe also.”

About 1,000 persons were present at the execution. The prisoner exhibited the utmost self-composure, and warned his hearers to escape the effects of bad passion.

Last Tuesday Fouks gave his body to a physician of Fauquier County, saying that the doctors would get it anyhow.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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