Posts filed under 'Botched Executions'

1867: Ciosi and Agostini, at the Polygone of Vincennes

Add comment January 21st, 2019 Headsman

From the London Times, Jan. 23, 1867, under a January 22 dateline:

The two soldiers (Corsicans) who committed a murder and robbery some time since at Neuilly, and were sentenced to death by court-martial, were shot yesterday morning, in presence of a large crowd, at the Polygone of Vincennes. One of them, [Jean-Baptiste] Agostini, was so exhausted that he had to be tied to a post to keep him from falling to the ground. The other, [Jean-Antoine] Ciosi, was more courageous, and, having addressed the shooting party to this effect, — “Dear comrades, on my conscience, I committed the crime for which I die, but I committed no robbery. I ask pardon of God, and of you. Farewell!” he himself gave the word to fire. The troops marched past the bodies as they lay on the ground. The interment took place in the burial ground of Vincennes, under the supervision of the chaplain of the fort.

A longer French-language account of the crime and execution — including the necessity of a brain-splattering coup de grace to complete the sentence — can be found here. There’s some fuzziness with the date cited in different places but French press reports (for instance, from Le Figaro on January 22) unambiguously place it on Monday the 21st.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Murder,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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1890: Elmer Sharkey, wretched matricide

Add comment December 19th, 2018 H.M. Fogle

From the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


The Terrible End of Elmer Sharkey

Exit Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp. The night of December 18, 1890, [i.e., after midnight on the 19th. People are just egregious with dates. -ed.] witnessed the double execution of Elmer Sharkey and Henry Popp.

Elmer Sharkey, serial number 20,517, was the picture of physical manhood, young, handsome and accomplished; but his crime was the most diabolical one that ever disgraced the fair pages of Ohio’s history.

About nine o’clock on the fatal night of December 18, Father Logan appeared at the Annex and baptized Sharkey in the Catholic faith. Shortly after this the two murderers were taken out into the reception room of the Annex, where they remained until after the reading of their death warrants. It was just a few minutes after eleven o’clock when Father Logan came into the Annex to comfort the condemned men. He informed them that there was no earthly hope; that the Governor absolutely refused to interfere, and that they should prepare for the worst. Sharkey and his doomed companion were then taken back into the Annex proper, where they bade good-bye to those who were left behind. A little later Warden Dyer came down the corridor and entered the reception room, to which the condemned men were again taken. Facing them the Warden said: “Boys, I have a painful duty to perform; but the law requires it. Henry,” to Popp “this is your death warrant.” Popp shook as with the ague, and stammered, “Yes sir.” He then arose to his feet and listened attentively to the reading of the warrant. The reading of Popp’s warrant finished, the Warden turned to Sharkey who was leaning against the steam heater and read his warrant. Sharkey stood with his hands in his pockets, seemingly indifferent. This over, Chaplain Sutton and Father Logan each offered up a fervent prayer, and then the Warden left the Annex to make further preparations for the executions that followed a few minutes later.

Promptly at midnight Warden Dyer, Deputy Porter and Assistant Brady at his side, stepped into the guard room. A mad rush was made for the gate. But a careful separation of the sheep from the goats was made by the Captain of the guard room, who carefully scrutinized each passport. Noiselessly the procession passed down the long, dimly-lighted corridor to the Annex. Once inside the enclosure Warden Dyer promptly mounted the scaffold, and placed everything in readiness. But a moment thus, and the approach of the doomed man was heralded by appearance of Father Logan who stepped from the cage onto the scaffold, and took his stand on the right of the trap door. A hush fell as the pale and bloodless countenance of Elmer Sharkey appeared. He moved with a nervous, gliding motion toward the fatal trap, hesitated for a moment, and then stepped squarely upon it; and with downcast eyes and drooping head, stood there in waiting, a picture of silent despair and hopeless agony. Once, twice, three times he raised his eyes and cast a quick, sweeping glance over the throng of spectators, then resumed his downward look of misery, murmuring in a low tone: “My God, make quick work of it!” When asked if he asked [sic] anything to say, he raised his head slightly and said: “I ask God’s forgiveness, and all I have wronged; and I forgive everything.” The Father pressed the cross to his passive, bloodless lips and he kissed it fervently. The hood was then made ready and he was asked for his last words. “That is all I can think of now.”

As the hood was being adjusted he faltered and would have fallen backward in a faint, but was sustained by ready hands. Just as the noose was being drawn around his neck, he again lost control of himself, and started to fall; but the noose was slipped with a quick movement; the trap sprung, and down he went. As a result of his fainting he fell in a partially horizontal attitude, and the tightening of the rope produced a swinging motion of the body, thus breaking the force of the fall. The result was that the neck was not broken, and the poor, wretched matricide was left to die by strangulation. The sounds that floated out over the awe-hushed group as the dying man struggled for breath, is [sic] beyond description. The sickening sight and horrible sounds drove many of the spectators from the execution room.

The drop fell at 12:05, and for several minutes the terrible struggle lasted, then the sounds from the throat, and convulsions of the body grew less frequent. At 12:34 the quivering heart ceased to beat, just twenty-nine minutes after the drop fell. All within that narrow enclosure breathed a sigh of relief when the attending physician finally pronounced him dead.

His execution was one of the longest on record, and the longest in the history of Ohio.

Elmer Sharkey suffered death on the scaffold for the cold-blooded murder of the woman who gave him birth, a widow of Preble County. No wonder his death was such an ignominous and horrible one. Mrs. Sharkey had violently opposed his marriage to the woman of his choice, and threatened to disinherit him if the marriage was consummated. The unnatural son, in a spirit of revenge, butchered his poor old mother with a meat axe, mangling her almost beyond recognition. He confessed his guilt, and “died in the hope of a glorious immortality.”

[Popp, not dwelt upon by Fogle, was a Bavarian immigrant who fatally stabbed the barkeep who attempted to eject him while rowdy in his cups. -ed.]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,USA

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1857: Two members of the Aiken Party

Add comment November 25th, 2018 Headsman

The first “executions” meted out by Mormon captors to the Aiken or Aikin Party men who were attempting to cross the war-footing territory eastward from California took place on November 25, 1857, and were as clumsy as they were brutal.

Under the pretext of escorting them out of the state, Thomas Aiken, John Aiken, John “Colonel” Eichard, and Andrew Jackson “Honesty” Jones reached the small settlement of Salt Creek, Utah, on November 24. They had their least peaceful sleep there that night while their guides, acting on orders from the top of the state’s hierarchy, planned their murders.

Four toughs dispatched by Bishop Jacob Bigler slipped out of Nephi before dawn the next day. They’d ride on ahead, and later that evening “accidentally” meet the southbound Aiken men and their escorts, presenting themselves as a chance encounter on the trails to share a camp that night. These toughs plus the escorts gave the Mormons an 8-to-4 advantage on their prisoners, which was still only good enough to kill 2-of-4 when the time came:

David Bigler’s 2007 Western Historical Quarterly article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857-1858.”

After supper, the newcomers sat around the fire singing. “Each assassin had selected his man. At a signal from [Porter] Rockwell, [the] four men drew a bar of iron each from his sleeve and struck his victim on the head. Collett did not stun his man and was getting worsted. Rockwell fired across the camp fire and wounded the man in the back. Two escaped and got back to Salt Creek.”

We don’t actually know which two died at the camp and which two made it back to Salt Creek. Bigler suspects Thomas Aiken and John Eichard were the victims to die on the 25th; the editors of Mormon assassin Bill Hickman‘s confessional autobiography make it Thomas Aiken and Honesty Jones.

The doomed men were stopping at T. B. Foote’s, and some persons in the family afterwards testified to having heard the council that condemned them. The selected murderers, at 11 p.m., started from the Tithing House and got ahead of the Aikins, who did not start till dayhght. The latter reached the Sevier River, when Rockwell informed them they could find no other camp that day; they halted, when the other party approached and asked to camp with them, for which permission was granted. The weary men removed their arms and heavy clothing, and were soon lost in sleep — that sleep which for two of them was to have no waking on earth. All seemed fit for their damnable purpose, and yet the murderers hesitated. As near as can be determined, they still feared that all could not be done with perfect secrecy, and determined to use no firearms. With this view the escort and the party from Nephi attacked the sleeping men with clubs and the kingbolts of the wagons. Two died without a struggle.

As for the two survivors … that’s a tale for another day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Businessmen,Espionage,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,USA,Utah,Wartime Executions

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2009: Two Somali spies

Add comment October 25th, 2018 Headsman

MOGADISHU, Oct. 25 (Xinhua) — Somalia’s Al Shabaab Islamist movement on Sunday executed two young men for alleged spying for the Somali government in the southern town of Marka.

The radical group has been waging insurgency for two years against the Somali government and the African Union peacekeeping forces in the capital Mogadishu.

After the execution was carried out in central Marka town, an official from the group told crowds of local people who gathered to watch the punishment that the men were convicted of spying for the Somali government after “they confessed to the crime.”

“The men were executed because of apostasy and for spying for the apostate government. After three months of investigation and their confession to the crime they were executed in accordance with the Islamic law,” said Sheikh Sultan, an Al Shabaab official in Marka.

Residents said that the young men were executed by firing squad of Al Shabaab fighters as crowds, mainly women and children, looked on the capital punishment.

The hardline Islamist group of Al Shabaab controls much of southern and central Somalia and usually carries out amputations, executions, and floggings of criminals and opposition individuals in areas under their control, including parts of the Somali capital. The Islamist group, which is considered by the Somali government and the United States as a terrorist organization, declares a fight to establish an Islamic State in Somalia.

The Reuters report on this same incident adds a witness describing that “One of the boys did not die easily, so about eight masked al Shabaab men went close and opened fire on him. Soon his body looked like chopped-up meat because of the many gunshots.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Heresy,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Somalia

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1821: Corporal Chaguinha, Brazil’s saint of freedom

1 comment September 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Brazil’s saint of freedom was martyred by the Portuguese.

Francisco José das Chagas, fondly remembered as Corporal Chaguinha, led a mutiny in Santos of enlistees aggrieved by wages five years overdue, and the unequal treatment of Brazilian as compared to Portuguese soldiers.

It was a fraught and contradictory political moment; the Portuguese royal family had spent the past decade-plus in the quasi-exile of their New World colony after fleeing Napoleon. In the process they had (even formally) elevated Brazil from a mere dependency to a coequal in the empire, and attempts to reverse this promotion once the royals returned to Portugal in early 1821 found little welcome in Brazil.

Chaguinha was born to symbolize in his death his countrymen’s frustration.

To great popular indignation a customary pardon was not extended to the man, who was instead publicly hanged in a notorious botch. After the rope broke repeatedly — and again a public clamor for clemency was refused — they strangled him slowly with a leather strap. A Catholic priest named Diogo Antônio Feijó, who in time would rise to become the regent of independent Brazil, would describe seeing “with my own eyes” seeing the still-surviving Chaguinha being murdered lying under the gallows after his last noose failed to support him.

Brazil declared independence from Portugal one year later almost to the date (September 7, 1822), and won the war to clinch it. The martyred corporal was thereafter improved by veneration as a popular saint credited with miraculous intercessions for suitably patriotic Brazilians.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Brazil,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Portugal,Public Executions,Soldiers

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1996: Roberto Giron and Pedro Castillo, televised shootings

Add comment September 13th, 2018 Headsman

Roberto Giron and Pedro Castillo, peasants who raped and murdered a four-year-old girl, were shot at the Guatemalan town of Escuintla on September 13, 1996.

The executions — Guatemala’s first juridical shootings since 1983, although civil war death squads had ravaged the country in the meanwhile — were filmed by the press and televised, and the tape told an troubling tale: both men survived the initial volley and after paunchy doctors hastily conferred by the gasping doomed men, were icily finished off by the squad commander’s pistol.

Warning: Mature Content. This is a snuff film. A slightly longer cut of the same reel can be found here.

Thanks to this ghastly debacle, Guatemala changed its execution method to lethal injection — an application of which was also televised in 2000.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guatemala,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Shot

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1857: Danforth Hartson, again

Add comment July 15th, 2018 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.)

“For God’s sake, don’t do that again.”

Danforth Hartson, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed July 15, 1857

Hartson (aka Sailor Jim) claimed self-defense in a fight that followed his argument with “estimable citizen” John Burke, whom he knocked to the ground and then shot in the chest. Burke was able to make a full statement, naming Hartson as the murderer, before he died.

Hartson’s last words came after he slipped through the noose and fell through the trap door.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1894: William Whaley, “the horror of the situation”

Add comment June 22nd, 2018 H.M. Fogle

This ghastly description of a botched hanging comes courtesy of the out-of-print The palace of death, or, the Ohio Penitentiary Annex: A human-interest story of incarceration and execution of Ohio’s murderers, with a detailed review of the incidents connected with each case by H.M. Fogle (1908):


Chapter 19

William Whaley
June 22, 1894

A negro robber who beat out the brains of Allen Wilson, near Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a dray pin. Hanged June 22, 1894

A Brutal Robber Meets a Just Fate


William Whaley, serial number 25,257, was executed in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex twelve minutes after the birth of a new day, June 22, 1894, for the brutal murder of Allen Wilson, a thrifty and hard working colored man.

The crime was committed near Yellow Springs, Greene County, Ohio, on the night of June 6, 1893. Robbery was the motive for the crime, and a dray pin the instrument of destruction. He sneaked upon his victim in the dark, and literally beat his brains out.

Whaley was a young man not over twenty-five years of age, and with perhaps one exception, was the most profane man that was ever incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary Annex. He refused all spiritual consolation, and cursed his executioners almost with his dying breath. He was a cowardly cur, and betrayed his cowardice while on the scaffold. Three times he sank to his knees as the noose was being adjusted. The attending Guards were compelled each time to assist him to his feet, and finally to hold him up by main strength until the rattle of the lever shot his body through the open trap. Being almost in a total state of collapse, the body instead of plunging straight through the opening, pitched forward, striking the side of the door, thus breaking the force of the fall. For this reason the neck was not broken, and death was produced by the slow and harrowing process of strangulation.

Reader, if you have never seen a sight of this kind you cannot understand or comprehend the horror of the situation. Time after time the limbs were drawn up with a convulsive motion, and then straightened out with a jerk. The whole body quivered and shook like one might with the ague; while the most hideous and sickening sounds came from the throat. This continued for eighteen minutes; but to one looking on it seemed an age. After eighteen minutes the sounds ceased; the body became perfectly still; the limbs began to stiffen; the heart-beats to weaken. In just twenty-six minutes after the drop fell the last pulsation was felt, and the doctor solemnly said: “Warden, I pronounce the man dead.”

The outraged law had been avenged, and a soul unprepared had been ushered into Eternity.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1890: Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, wife and husband

Add comment June 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1890, an affectionate married couple hanged together in Elko, Nevada, for a murder they insisted they had not authored.

We obtain this headline and the associated (nationally circulated) story from the San Diego Union of June 26, 1890.

[Associated Press Dispatches.]

ELKO, Nev., June 20. — Elko is in a ferment of excitement, many parties pouring in to witness the execution of the Potts family for the murder of Miles Fawcett in January, 1888. Over sixteen women have already applied for permits to witness the execution, which were refused.

The conduct of Mrs. Potts during the past five days has been an alternation of hysterical crying, screaming and swearing at her husband, who mopes the time away in solitude. Yesterday morning at 5 o’clock she attempted to commit suicide, gashing her wrists and trying to smother herself. The vigilance of the death watch prevented further injury but she fainted from loss of blood. Both the Potts retired early last night in a nervous condition.

At 10:30 o’clock the Sheriff read the death-warrants to Josiah and Elizabeth Potts. The reading of the warrant took place in the doorway of the latticed cell, which Josiah has occupied for so long a period.

He stood in a despondent attitude, with his head bowed down against the iron bars, and not once during the reading of the warrant did he lift his head. His wife stood erect, clad in a neat muslin suit draped in black, with a red rose in her bodice. She was pale, but with a most determined aspect in every feature. During the reading of her own warrant only once did she show any emotion whatever, and she convulsively clutched her throat when her husband’s was being read, and when the words “hanged by the neck till you are dead” were reached, she gave a hysterical gasp and seemed to exhibit much feeling.

The reading of the warrants was finished at 10:30, and both the condemned people emerged from the jail, where they had been confined for eighteen months, and proceeded outside the door to the yard between the Courthouse and jail, in which the scaffold had been erected. The sunshine relieved in a measure the gruesome surroundings. During the readings of the warrants, and evidently owing to the intense nervous strain on every one, a Deputy Sheriff was so overcome that he had to call for a glass of water.

At the conclusion of the reading Mrs. Potts earnestly ejaculated:

I AM INNOCENT AND GOD KNOWS IT,

and Josiah Potts reiterated, “God knows we are innocent.” The gloomy procession led the way through a side door and with a bravery unexpected by the sixty-odd spectators, the condemned couple seated themselves on stools provided on the scaffold, while the deputies speedily proceeded to bind them with leather straps, Mrs. Potts helping to adjust them herself while Potts sat through it all in stolidity.

When everything had been properly adjusted, they were directed to rise and all of the attendants shook hands with the condemned unfortunates. The attendants held the strap attached to Mrs. Potts’ manacled wrists and Potts made several most earnest endeavors to clasp the hands of his wife but without accomplishing it. Finally a touch on her wrist caused her to turn her eyes toward his and a mute appeal of love caused their lips to meet. As the rope was stretched around Mrs. Potts’ neck she clasped her hands together, and lifting her eyes towards the sky, exclaimed “God help me; I am innocent.”

Her husband reiterated in a hollow tone, “God knows we are innocent,” as the black caps were drawn over their heads.

The words of the clergyman who had remained with them to the last broke the silence by saying: “Put your trust in God and He will see you righted,” and then the drop fell. Instantaneously,

MRS. POTTS WAS A CORPSE,

owing to her heavy weight. Her flacid [sic] flesh caused a rupture of the carotid artery and a stream of blood burst forth from under the chin of the dead woman, staining her white raiment. To the great surprise of all who had seen Potts’ emaciated condition his vitality was great, it being a fraction over fourteen minutes, as counted by the Associated Press reporter, before life was pronounced extinct by Drs. Meiggs and Petty.

At 11:08 the body of Mrs. Potts was cut down when it was seen that her excessive weight on the five foot and a half drop had almost dissevered her head from the trunk, the muscles in the back of her neck alone supporting the connection.

About nine minutes later Josiah Potts’ body was cut down and the body of himself and wife, in the absence of any claiming friends, were deposited in the potter’s field of the Elko grave yard half an hour later.

After the interment of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, District Attorney Love, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter, placed in the potter’s field all the remains of the murdered Fawcett known to exist above the earth. The box of bones had been in the District Attorney’s office at the Courthouse from the time when he first started to search for the criminals.

THE CRIME

for which the couple was executed was the murder of Miles Fawcett, 70 years of age, at Carlin, January 1st, 1888, because he insisted on being paid some money due from Potts. He visited Potts and this was the last seen of him until his dead body was discovered some months after by a person who rented the house formerly occupied by Potts.


That’s the end of the Union article.

Despite the incriminating circumstances of Mr. Fawcett’s disappearance, many people found the Potts’s insistence upon their innocence persuasive … especially after a last message from Elizabeth Potts reached public ears.


Laramie (Wyoming) Daily Boomerang, June 24, 1624.

Innocent or guilty, Elizabeth Potts remains the first, last, and only woman ever legally executed in Nevada. As of this writing (mid-2018) the Silver State has not had any woman on death row since Priscilla Joyce Ford died in 2005.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Pelf,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1895: A day in death penalty around the U.S. (McTeague edition)

Add comment June 7th, 2018 Headsman


Headline from the Tacoma (Wash.) Daily News, June 7, 1895.

On this date in 1895, the hangman noosed for the cycle with single, double, and triple executions in three different U.S. states.

Arkansas

In Morrilltown, William Downs or Downes for criminally assaulting a woman called Pauline Bridlebaugh.

“On the scaffold Downs declared that he was guilty of part but not all he was charged with,” according to multiple newspaper reports. The eight-foot fall failed to snap his neck, and Downs strangled to death over 15 agonizing minutes.

Alabama

“Lee Harris and Abe Mitchell, colored murderers, highwaymen and thieves, were hanged here [Birmingham] today before 2000 people for the murder of Grocerymen Merriweather and Thornton. Both bodies were turned over to the undertakers, who purchased them several weeks ago for $18 from the men themselves.”


From the Oakland Tribune, June 7, 1895.
California

Three Californians hanged, sequentially, at San Quentin prison on the morning of June 7 in an affair timed to ensue the arrival of the 7:40 train from San Francisco, carrying about 100 official witnesses.

Emilio Garcia stabbed and slashed to death a San Bernardino old timer whom he believed to possess a hoard of gold.

Anthony Azoff fatally shot a Southern Pacific detective in the course of a botched robbery of that railroad firm’s offices; he was balked of a suicide attempt in the hours before his execution.

And Patrick Collins acquired more lasting infamy than any of his scaffold brethren by sensationally stabbing to death his estranged wife at the kindergarten where she worked when she refused his demand to hand over her wages.

Collins’s guilt was very apparent, so his trial gave the horrified public ample rein to sketch the brute in terms of the era’s crackpot racist typologies. In one Examiner article tellingly titled “He Was Born for the Rope,” it was postulated that “if a good many of Patrick Collins’ ancestors did not die on the scaffold then either they escaped their desert or there is nothing in heredity … Seeing him you can understand that murder is as natural to such a man when his temper is up as hot speech is to the anger of the civilized.”


Various newspaper images of Patrick Collins, from The Construction of Irish Identity in American Literature.

Be they ever so headline-conquering in their time, such crimes are like to fade speedily from the public memory. Collins, the man who slaughtered his tightfisted wife, and Collins, the savage ethnic archetype, have improbably survived his moment of notoriety, by imparting to literature the inspiration for San Francisco novelist Frank Norris‘s 1899 offering McTeague.

In McTeague, a vicious husband murders the wife he has abandoned when she refuses him money. The murderer here presents as an overpowering ancestral beast within — attributable, says Christopher Dowd, to Norris’s “study of criminal anthropology, particularly the school of thinking developed by Cesare Lombroso regarding atavism, hereditary criminality, degeneration, and criminal physiognomy. According to Donald Pizer, by the time Norris wrote McTeague, he had developed a ‘preoccupation’ with the themes of atavism and reversion, and ‘particularly with the role of heredity in causing either an obvious physical or mental devolution or a return to an earlier family condition’. Suddenly, Norris had a way to explain the behavior of his murderous protagonist — he was born a criminal, having inherited the degenerate traits and predilections of his Irish ancestors. Combined with the newspaper reports of the Collins murder, criminal anthropology gave Norris all the tools he needed to write, what Pizer calls, ‘that mythical creature of literature, a naturalistic tragedy'”. For example, Norris zooms through the disordered mind of McTeague as he struggles to control himself on one occasion.

He was disturbed, still trembling, still vibrating with the throes of the crisis, but he was the master; the animal was downed, was cowed for this time, at least.

But for all that, the brute was there. Long dormant, it was now at last alive, awake. From now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity. Ah, the pity of it! Why could he not always love her purely, cleanly? What was this perverse, vicious thing that lived within him, knitted to his flesh?

Below the fine fabric of all that was good in him ran the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. The vices and sins of his father and of his father’s father, to the third and fourth and five hundredth generation, tainted him. The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins. Why should it be? He did not desire it. Was he to blame?

McTeague does not exit upon the gallows as did his real-life inspiration; instead, having murdered and robbed his wife, the fugitive flees to the scorching desert of Death Valley where he faces a fight to the finish with a friend/rival who has pursued him. McTeague overpowers this foe, but the man’s dying act is to handcuff himself to McTeague — condemning the latter to sure death.

McTeague has long been in the public domain; it can be perused here; a Librivox audio reading of the book is available here. It’s also been adapted to at least two films in the silent era — including one of the genre’s greats — plus a more recent PBS radio drama, an opera, and miscellaneous other media.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Arkansas,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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