Posts filed under 'Botched Executions'

1610: Roger Cadwallador, English priest

1 comment August 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1610, the priest Roger Cadwallador was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Herefordshire, where he had maintained an illicit Catholic ministry for 16 years.

Having spent most of the morning in spiritual preparation (for his end) about ten o’clock he took some corporal food, viz. a little comfortable broth; and calling for a pint of claret wine and sugar, on occasion of a friend that was come to visit him, he made use of the words of bishop Fisher in the like case, as he said, when he was taking a cordial, before the like combat of death; fortitudinem meam ad te domine custodian, Saying in English, he took it to make himself strong to suffer for God. Then as if he had been to go to a feast, he put on his wedding-garment (viz. a new suit of cloaths) which a friend had provided for him, from top to toe, whom he requited with a good and godly exhortation, counselling him to persevere till death in the catholic faith; and giving him directions to bestow twelve pence of his money on the porter; for he kept two shillings in his own pocket to bestow on him that was to lead and drive the horse, when he went to execution.

His jailer pressed him repeatedly, as was usual, to apostasize and save his flesh. The terrors of the gallows being quite real even to martyrs, this menace surely worked for some … but never, it seems for those who reach these grim annals.

Being taken off the hurdle, and brought within sight of the gallows, and the block whereon he was to be quartered, they shewed him these and other instruments of death, leading him between two great fires, the one prepared to burn his heart and bowels, the other to boil his head and quarters: and thinking the sight of these did somewhat terrify him, they promised him once more that none of them should touch him, if he would take the oath; but his christian courage made him persist in his resolution of dying in that quarrel.

Cadwallador would need every drop of that resolution when an artlessly executed hanging unintentionally left him quite sensible to experience the horrors of having his trunk ripped open to tear out organs that would feed those great fires. When “the unskilful executioner”

came to turn the ladder … [Cadwallador] said aloud five or six times, In manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum. Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. And lastly, Domine accipe spiritum meum. Lord receive my spirit. He hunt very long, and in extraordinary pain, by reason that the knot, through the unskilfulness of the hangman, came to be directly under his chin, serving only to pain, and not to dispatch him.

Insomuch that when the people were persuaded that he was thoroughly dead, he put up his hand to the halter, as if he had either meant to shew how his case stood, or else to ease himself: but bethinking himself better, and perhaps a scruple coming into his head to concur to hasten his own death; he had scarce touched the halter, but that he presently pulled away his hand. And within the space of a Pater-noster after, he lifted up his hand again to make the sign of the cross; which made all the standers by much amazed; and some of the vulgar desirous to rid him of his pain, lifted him upwards by the legs twice or thrice, letting him fall again with a swag.

Then after a little rest, when they thought him quite dead, he was cut down: but when he was brought to the block to be quartered, before the bloody butcher could pull off his doublet, he revived and began to breathe; which the multitude perceiving began to murmur; which made the under-sheriff cry out to the executioner to hasten: but before they had stripped him naked he was come to a very perfect breathing.

It was long after they had opened him before they could find his heart, which, notwithstanding, panted in their hands when it was pulled out.

As soon as the head was cut off, one of the sheriff’s men lifted it up on the point of a halbert, expecting the applause of the people, who made no sign that the fact was pleasing to them. Nay, they that were present were struck at the sight, and said, this priest’s behaviour and death would give great confirmation to all the papists of Herefordshire: which saying fell out to be true; for it ministered to them great courage and comfort.

Cadwallador was beatified in 1987.

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.

Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.

The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.

Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.

And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?

One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”

Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.

We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:

Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …

He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.

The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1936: Arthur Gooch, the only execution under the Lindbergh Law

Add comment June 19th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.

Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*

The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.

The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.

At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.

Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.

They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.

A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.

Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.

Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.

By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.

But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)

Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.


Arthur Gooch on the gallows

* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.

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1922: Colin Campbell Ross, for the Gun Alley Murder

1 comment April 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.

Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.

In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.

(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)

Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.

Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”

Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.

A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.

Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?

“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.

Even decades later this gotcha was being celebrated as a triumph of forensic science, for the blanket’s locks “corresponded exactly” with those of the victim.

But they didn’t correspond.

“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.

That day took 85 years in coming.

In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.

Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.

Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.

* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.

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1880: James Madison Wyatt Stone, landing on his feet

2 comments April 2nd, 2014 Headsman

The wonderful blog Ghosts of D.C. calls our attention (via SanhoTree) to a fabulously gruesome botched hanging in the nation’s capital on this day in 1880.

Stone was condemned for a brutal double-throat-slashing attack on his estranged wife, Alberta, and her sister, Lavinia Pitcher. Those two women lived together in Northwest D.C. along with Alberta’s two children by Stone; they had already had to shoo away the husband on previous occasions.

On Oct. 5, 1878, Stone forced his way into their residence and attacked Lavinia — she just happened to be in the sitting room when Stone burst the door. Pursuing her into the yard, Stone slashed her throat with a razor. Alberta came rushing down the stair to her shrieking sister’s aid, and Stone turned on her and delivered a similar injury. Alberta died the next morning; Lavinia survived.

Stone was chased down by neighbors who had been roused by the very noisy assault, which citizen captors then fended off attempts to exact summary justice until police arrived to take Stone into custody.

So that’s the crime. But get a load of the punishment.

Stone was hanged in a prison courtyard from a gallows 20 feet high, with just a five-foot drop of the rope. The details are important here because you might think from the story that follows that he was dropped almost all the way to the ground: the violence of the noose striking tends to cause a hanged body to oscillate. “He’s only got to be an inch or two off-centre and he’ll swing like a bloody pendulum when he’s dropped,” the executioner Syd Dernley remembered being told during his 20th century training program.

You can see pretty easily why that’s pertinent from the Washington Post‘s account of what happened when the trap was dropped.

Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost.

Falling 20 feet to land arrow-straight upright while your black-bagged was torn off by a rope must be something like tossing a coin and having it come up … sides.

Physicians coolly retrieved the head from its bloodied sack, and found Stone’s visage “placid, and the lips moved as if about to say something.” (New York Times) It was sewed back to the murderer’s formerly blood-jetting neck for burial.

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1864: Bizoton Affair executions

Add comment February 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a bustling market Saturday in Port-au-Prince, Haiti was enlivened with the public executions of eight Haitians for cannibalistic murder.

It was perhaps the signal event in a long-running campaign against vodou (voodoo, vaudoux) in whose service the murder was supposedly committed. The charge sheet had it that a man intent on an occult rite to propitiate the spirit world had slaughtered his own young niece and with several friends and family devoured her remains.

It made for some great copy.

“The eye of the law has penetrated into the midst of the bloody mysteries of this religious cannibalism, against which all the teachings of Catholicism have remained powerless,” breathed the world press in salacious revelry.


Sketch of the Bizoton Affair accused from Harper’s Weekly.

Within Haiti and without, vodou itself stood in the dock alongside its adherents. This was quite likely the very point of the trial.

The popular syncretic religion, heavily derived from Haitian slaves’ African roots, represented to Haitian elites and European observers alike all that was most barbarous about the one place that had run white slavers off. Just a few years ago as I write this, the U.S. televagelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haiti had come by its liberty due to a long-ago pact with the devil. That “pact” was a secret vodou ceremony launching the rebellion that became the Haitian Revolution.

Vodou persisted throughout the 19th century — it still persists today — among Haiti’s underclasses. Though frequently persecuted, vodou enjoyed the support and personal devotion of Emperor Faustin Soulouque, a former slave who ruled Haiti in the 1850s. When Soulouque was overthrown by Fabre Geffrard in a coup backed by Haiti’s elites, dissociating from vodou was one of his principal tasks.

As the history blogger Mike Dash explains in a detailed exploration of the case’s background, the deeply Catholic Geffrard had come to an arrangement with the Vatican that

committed the president to making Catholicism Haiti’s state religion — and the executions of February 1864, which so clearly demonstrated Christian “orthodoxy,” took place just weeks before the priests of the first mission to the country arrived from Rome. The trial was followed up, moreover, by a redrafting of Haiti’s Code Pénal, which increased the fines levied for “sorcery” sevenfold and added that “all dances and other practices that … maintain the spirit of fetishism and superstition in the population will be considered spells and punished with the same penalties.”

The original records of the trial are long lost, meaning the surviving accounts are typically the very partisan ones already convinced that pagan vodou cannibalism was rampant in Haiti. The British charge d’affaires Spenser St. John* has one of the best-known and most influential from his 1887 memoir of Haiti. (St. John attended the trial personally with other European dignitaries.)

St. John considered the case self-evident, and dwelt on its lurid revelations of the cannibalism scene — the flaying of little Claircine’s body, the palm of the hand savored by one cannibal as the choicest morsel. Cannibal testimony was St. John’s own choice morsel; in his view, Haitians extremely “sensitive to foreign public opinion” obstinately threw up a collective wall of silence on a practice that “every foreigner in Hayti” just knew was everywhere around him. But even when St. John published, after another 20-odd years past the Bizoton trial to gather evidence of anthropophagism, all that he managed to produce were two highly dubious second-hand accounts of white men allegedly sneaking into vodou ceremonies under cover of blackface and reporting the sacrifice of children. In the hands of Victorian writers prone to still further embroidery these few sketchy dispatches — and the notorious Bizoton case — would help to cement vodou’s sinister reputation.

St. John’s American counterpart was less impressed with the show trial, its moral panic scenario, and the thrashings administered to the accused to force their confessions.

It was not a fair trial; the evidence was extracted by torture. There was a report in circulation. It caused great excitement. Government took it up, and was determined to convict, because it was a seeming stain on their race. The verdict was forced.

Per St. John, the execution itself was badly botched. “The prisoners, tied in pairs” were “fired [at] with such inaccuracy” by their respective shooting teams “that only six fell wounded on the first discharge.” It took half an hour and much reloading to complete the executions, “and the incidents were so painful, that the horror at the prisoners’ crimes was almost turned into pity at witnessing their unnecessary sufferings.”

* As a consular official in a previous post on the opposite side of the globe, St. John accompanied two of the earliest ascents of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo; as a consequence, one of that mountain’s peaks bears his name.

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1875: William Wilson, taking the priest with him

Add comment December 10th, 2013 Headsman

From The Fabulous Frontier, 1846-1912. (The entire text below is a single large paragraph in that book, so line breaks have been added for readability.)

On August 2, 1875, Robert Casey was shot and killed by William Wilson in Lincoln with a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. Wilson was tried, convicted by a jury and sentenced to be hanged.

On December 10, 1875, the appointed day, a large crowd gathered in the Lincoln* jail yard to witness the hanging. Ash Upson** was present as a representative of the press, but left shortly after the trap was sprung, probably to get a drink.

After being suspended by a rope for nine and one-half minutes by the Sheriff’s watch, Wilson’s body was taken down from the scaffold and placed in the coffin.

Spectators nudged the Sheriff and told him that Wilson was not yet dead.

Red-faced and embarrassed the Sheriff and several helpers lifted William Wilson from his wooden coffin, escorted him once more to the scaffold. The rope was again tied around the condemned man’s neck and he was suspended for an additional twenty minutes, at the end of which time there was not much doubt that the demands of the law had been satisfied.

Father Antonio Lamy, twenty-eight years old, a native of France, a nephew of Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe, had been a reluctant witness to the hanging … Padre Lamy had been in Lincoln on a missionary tour. He called at the jail to offer spiritual consolation to William Wilson, soon to be hanged. Wilson prepared himself for death under Father Lamy’s direction and accepted his offer of company to the scaffold.

The hanging and rehanging of Wilson proved too much for the frail young man of God.

Rather desperately ill, suffering from chills and high temperature, the Padre insisted on returning on horseback to Manzano a few days after William Wilson had been hanged. Arriving in Manzano, Father Lamy’s condition rapidly became worse. He died there on February 6, 1876.

The remains of the priest were buried under the floor of the parish church at Manzano. The story of Padre Lamy’s death has for many years been kept alive in the Manzano community. His grave in the church has long been a silent sermon in opposition to the brutality of capital punishment.

* Lincoln was a little hit and miss with its necktie parties: it’s also the town where Billy the Kid escaped a hanging.

** Ghostwriter of Pat Garrett‘s memoir, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.

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1937: Douglas Van Vlack

Add comment December 9th, 2013 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.)

“I have a right to choose the way I die!”

— Douglas Van Vlack, convicted of murder, hanging, Idaho.
Executed December 9, 1937

Van Vlack kidnapped his ex-wife and killed her, as well as two police officers. A few hours before his hanging was scheduled, Van Vlack broke away from his guards and scrambled over the cell block to cling to the ceiling rafters. He stayed in the ceiling for a half an hour as his lawyer and the prison chaplain begged for him to come down; he jumped thirty feet below just before the guards entered the cell block with a net. Van Vlack’s hanging was unsuccessful; technically he died the next day, December 10, after a few hours in a coma.

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1927: Baldomero Rodrigues, and then Baldomero Rodrigues again

Add comment October 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Cuban murderer Baldomero Rodrigues was garroted in Pinar del Rio prison.

But when his body was laid out on a stretcher for disposal and the official witnesses were filing out of the death chamber, Rodrigues began showing signs of life.

It was “a defect in the garrote or due to careless adjustment of the metal band which fits about the victim’s neck to cause strangulation,” an Associated Press wire report ran.*

In present-day Iran, one of the most aggressive death penalty states going, a drug dealer managed to survive a hanging just weeks ago as I write this in 2013. That man got shipped to the hospital and placed on life support, with the justice minister eventually announcing that he wouldn’t be noosed again.

Gerardo Machado‘s Cuba was not so squishy.

With nary a pause to await further instruction, the execution-chamber guards forcibly subdued Rodrigues, who had reanimated sufficiently to “put up a furious struggle.” They forced their thrashing victim back onto the garrote, double-checked the metal band this time,** and tightened it until it asphyxiated Rodrigues a second time … then left the now-actually-lifeless body on the machine a full 22 minutes to make good and certain of their work.

* Here quoted from the Oct. 30, 1927 Los Angeles Times. Also see the New York Times from the same date for a truncated paraphrase of the same report.

** Presumably.

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