Posts filed under 'Gallows Humor'

1946: Neville Heath, torture-killer

5 comments October 16th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1946, 29-year-old torture-murderer Neville George Clevely Heath was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the murder of Margery Aimee Brownell Gardner, 32, an aspiring film actress.

Heath was one of the most notorious British killers of the mid-twentieth century. Although his victims numbered only two (the other being 21-year-old Doreen Margaret Marshall), he stood out from the pack by his brutality and sheer sadism. The Murders of the Black Museum, 1870-1970 provides this graphic description of the terrible injuries he inflicted on Doreen:

She had been struck several times on the back of her head. There were also abrasions on her back, a bruise on her right shoulder and an area of redness around the left collar-bone, as if someone had knelt on her. The left side of her chest was bruised and a rib had fractured, piercing the left lung. Her left arm was bruised, as were both wrists, which appeared to have been tightly tied; they also bore finger-nail imprints of her assailant. The fingers of both her hands were badly cut on the inside, as if she had seized a knife in self-defence. All these injuries had been inflicted before she died, her death itself having been caused by a haemorrhage resulting from two deep knife-cuts across her throat.

After death a nipple had been bitten off and her body had been mutilated. A jagged series of slashes reached from her vagina vertically up to her chest, where they were joined by a deep diagonal cut from each nipple to the centre of her body, forming a Y. A rough instrument, possibly a branch, had also perforated and torn her vagina and anus.

Heath came from a respectable, lower-middle-class background. His parents scraped together enough money for him to attend a private Catholic school, where early on he developed as a reputation as a bully.

As an adult he fell into crime, but there was nothing on his record to suggest he was capable of such gruesome acts; his previous convictions had been for offenses such as fraud, forgery, burglary and deserting the military.

In between stints in jail, he married a woman from a wealthy, prominent family and they had a son. By 1945, however, they were divorced.

Margery, Heath’s first victim, was separated from her husband at the time of her death. She had a masochistic predilection for bondage and flagellation, but even so, Heath was too much for her. In May 1946, they checked into a hotel together and he was so violent that she got scared and had to be rescued by hotel security.

Incredibly, however, when Heath called her to ask her out on another date, she agreed and they met again on June 20. They got drunk at a nightclub and took a cab to a hotel. No one heard any unusual noises during the night, but the next morning Margery’s bound, gagged and mutilated corpse was found in her fourth-floor room.

She had horrific injuries, all inflicted while she still lived, including cuts on her face, arms and back in an unusual criss-cross pattern. The cause of death was suffocation.

There was no sign of Heath, but within a day or two he’d been identified as a possible suspect and was sought for questioning.

Heath’s fiancee read about the murder in the papers and asked him about it. He told her he’d stumbled across the scene after Mrs. Gardner was already dead, and promised to go to the police and make a statement. He never did, but he did send a letter to the chief inspector, saying he’d lent his hotel key to Mrs. Gardner because she had nowhere else to sleep. She went to bed with a man named “Jack” but told Heath to come to her room after 2:00 a.m. to spend the rest of the night with her.

When he did, he wrote, “I found her in the condition of which you are aware. I realized that I was in an invidious position, and rather than notify the police, I packed my belongings and left.” Heath said he had the murder weapon and was mailing it to the police station in a separate package. He never did.

Instead, he went to Bournemouth and checked into the Tolland Royal Hotel under the name Rupert Brooke, after one of Britain’s most famous poets.

There he met Doreen Marshall.

Doreen Marshall.

Heath encountered Doreen on July 3 and asked her to have tea with him. She agreed. Tea turned into dinner, and the date didn’t end until almost midnight. At this time Heath said he would walk Doreen home, although she wanted to take a taxi instead. She was never seen alive again.

On July 5 she was reported missing and the Tolland Royal Hotel staff, knowing she’d dined with Heath, asked him to get in touch with the police. He did so, identifying himself by his alias Rupert Brooke. He told the story about their date and saying he’d left her on the pier and walked back to the Tolland Royal alone.

One of the police officers interviewing him about Doreen Marshall recognized Heath as the man wanted for questioning about Margery’s murder and confronted him, saying, “Isn’t your real name Heath?”

“Rupert Brooke” denied this, and when the police said they were detaining him for further questioning, he asked to be allowed to go to the hotel and get his coat. He’d come back right away, he said.

The cops were not that stupid and sent one of their own officers to fetch the coat. Inside was half a train ticket in Doreen Marshall’s name, as well as a cloakroom ticket issued at a train station on June 23. The police went to the train station to fetch what their prisoner had stored there: it turned out to be a suitcase containing several incriminating items, including clothing monogrammed with Heath’s real name, a bloodstained scarf and handkerchief, and a bloodstained riding crop woven in a criss-cross pattern that, it turned out, matched the marks on Margery’s body.

On July 8, Heath was formally charged with Margery’s murder. At around the same time, Doreen’s body turned up: she’d been dumped, naked, in a clump of bushes about a mile from the Tolland Royal Hotel.

At his trial, none of Heath’s friends or family members came to testify on his behalf. Given the evidence against him, his defense attorney could hardly argue that their client was innocent. Instead they claimed he was insane: only a madman could have committed such acts.

But Heath’s calm, composed manner, and his obvious efforts to cover up his crimes, went against the insanity defense and the jury had no trouble convicting him.

In his final letter to his parents, he wrote, “My only regret at leaving the world is that I have been damned unworthy of you both.” Just before his hanging, he was offered the customary drink of whiskey. He agreed and added, “Better make it a double.”

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1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”

What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.

He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.

Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.

Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,’” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”


Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.

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1955: Barbara Graham, of “I Want to Live” fame

1 comment June 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Barbara Graham was gassed at California’s San Quentin Prison, along with two confederates in the brutal murder of an elderly widow.

Following the classic sob-story vector from orphan to juvenile delinquent to petty criminal, Graham found her calling as femme fatale.

She entered adulthood with World War II, and spent the war years alternating between failed marriages and the working-girl beat for Pacific military bases.

“Sure, I was a prostitute — and a damn good one,” she later confided to a reporter. “Why do people make so much of sex anyway? It’s part of our natural make-up, like getting hungry for food. If you want to eat, you go to a grocery store or a restaurant. If you need sleep, you sleep. If you want sex, why not get it?” (Source, a thorough .doc file)

Police made a bigger deal of perjury when she unwisely tried to help out some underworld friends by swearing to a demonstrably bogus alibi for them. She did some real time, tried to go straight in a boring Nevada town, and inevitably — for the likes of this site — returned to the siren lures of California.

It was back to the familiar job servicing the familiar hunger … but now with a new hunger of her own: heroin.

And heroin meant a now-ravenous appetite for cash.

Barbara Graham’s trip to the gas chamber and to California crime history began when she and some fellow-addicts tried to satiate that latter craving by burgling the Burbank home of Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to live alone with a lot of portable valuables.

The job was a botch from beginning to end: someone bludgeoned the crippled woman to death, but nobody found the supposed boodle. And as the police investigation led back towards the culprits, two of them flipped on their confederates.

(The first of them was kidnapped and murdered to prevent his testimony while everyone was still on the lam. The second happily took his place as the stool pigeon once everyone was in custody. Graham, proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, got caught on a wire trying to suborn perjury on her own behalf, dramatically destroying her alibi defense mid-trial.)

Shock murder authored by vamp courtesan? (The informant would testify that Graham personally pistol-whipped the victim into a bloody heap.) Hellooooo, California noir.

In its day, Graham’s case prompted all the moralistic hand-wringing familiar to the condemned-hottie tableau down to our present age. And at least that much unconcealed voyeurism. On the eve of her death, the Los Angeles Times palpitated:

“Nothing can be done now — I’m lost,” Mrs. Graham sobbed yesterday when told that Federal judges here and in San Francisco had turned down the latest bids for a stay of execution …

Two years in prison waiting for death have taken their toll of the once attractive convicted murderess.

Her reddish-blond hair has reverted to its natural black color. She has lost about 30 pounds. She is gaunt, tense and near hysteria.

The two men who shared her crime, her sentence, and her fate, did not endure a similar public microscope. Why would they? Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins — and this is the first we’ve even bothered to name them in this post — were just two dude hoods from central casting. Three hours after “Bloody Babs” succumbed to the fumes,* Santo and Perkins were gassed together as the forgettable postscript, “chatt[ing] amiably” with one another in the little metal shed while San Quentin’s personnel did all the preparatory business. (Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1955)

Graham’s persistence with a decreasingly plausible innocence story similarly amplified the pathos of her situation.

It also set up a highly sympathetic post-execution cinematic portrayal, the 1958 I Want to Live!” — which garnered leading lady Susan Hayward an Oscar for Best Actress. Director Robert Wise actually personally witnessed the real Graham’s gassing as part of his research for the film.

A 1983 television remake starred former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner.

* Given the standard advice for gas chamber clientele that breathing deeply makes it all go down easy, Graham aptly retorted, “How in the hell would you know?”

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2007: Christopher Newton

Add comment May 24th, 2011 Headsman

After Christopher Newton’s death in Lucasville, Ohio by lethal injection on this day in 2007, his attorney read a prepared last statement that apologized for the murder of a fellow inmate: “If I could take it back, I would.”

But the evidence of the “bizarre” execution says Newton was right where he wanted to be.

From the time the obese career criminal (pdf) garroted his cellmate in 2001,* he cooperated with investigators only to the extent that cooperation would grease the wheels of that so-called machinery of death. The entire thing was engineered to get Newton his last parole.

It still took him over five years to land on a gurney, but if you think that’s inefficient, get a load of the execution itself.

For going on two hours, the injection team poked and prodded at Newton’s veins in vain, trying to squeeze a lethal shunt into its gargantuan subject.

“We have told the team to take their time,” read a sign that a prison spokesperson held up in the hush-hush viewing chamber an hour into this discomfiting procedure. “His size is creating a problem.”

Minutes later, the 19-stone condemned man got a bathroom break during his own execution.

So far as anyone could see, the delay was anything but agony for Newton, who was generally observed smiling, laughing, and chatting it up with the prison personnel who were struggling to kill him. Finally, they managed to do it — an achievement which Ohio has latterly demonstrated is by no means a given.

* And allegedly drank some of Jason Brewer’s blood to boot, though this claim proceeding from a man who was intentionally pursuing a death sentence merits skepticism.

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1789: Skitch, amidst the tears of thousands

Add comment April 3rd, 2011 Headsman

London Times, April 14, 1789:

Exeter, April 8. Friday last were executed at Heavitree-gallows, William Snow, alias Skitch, for breaking the house of Richard Adams, in the parish of Romansleigh, and stealing a quantity of plate thereout; and James Waybourn, for robbing farmer Stokes, near Bickley-wood. They were perfectly resigned to their fate; yet it was with difficulty that Waybourn was induced to answer any questions respecting his guilt.

The behaviour of Skitch manifested how little there is in the approach of death, when the human mind is brought into a calm and pious disposition, by serious meditation on the attributes of an all powerful and gracious Deity. He declared that day to be the happiest of his life; and exhorted the spectators to avoid his errors. He had hung but a few seconds, when the rope slipped from the gallows, and he fell to the ground. It is impossible to describe the feelings of the multitude at the thought of his being again suspended; yet was this painful interval less afflicting to the magnanimous sufferer than to the spectators. Skitch heard their sorrowful exclamations, and said, with an air of compassion, “Good people, be not hurried; I can wait a little:” and the executioner wishing to lengthen the rope, which had slipped, Skitch calmly waited till Waybourn was quite dead, when the rope was taken from the deceased’s arms, in order to compleat the execution of Skitch, who was a second time launched from the cart amidst the tears of thousands.


An overgrown gravestone in a Heavitree church cemetery. (cc) image from HayneZ.

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1790: Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras

Add comment February 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1790, Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, became a penal milestone: the first French noble executed without class distinction from commoners.

At least he made history.

The scion of an ancient and penurious noble line, Favras was trying to make a different kind of history: he’d hitched onto a plot of the future Louis XVIII to reverse the still-infant French Revolution and rescue the king and queen from captivity in the Tuileries.

The royal couple were ultimately destined to escape this palatial dungeon only to the guillotine.

But in Mahy’s day, it was possible to dream of counterrevolution. And that terrifying machine of the revolution hadn’t even been invented.

For that matter, the machinery of revolutionary justice had also not been born; this was Lafayette‘s year, the revolution in its moderate phase.

It was ancien regime jurists of the Chatelet who were here appointed to judge the enemies of the nation. Having just acquitted the guy who commanded monarchist forces in Paris on Bastille Day, these establishment magistrates proceeded to throw the revolutionary left a bone by condemning Favras to the democratic capital expiration of … hanging. (Back in the good old days, he would have had the right to a beheading. Plus ça change.)

The crowd was said to be quite enthusiastic.


“Thomas de Mahy, Marquis of Favras Making Honourable Amends before Notre-Dame,” engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (French link).

Little less interested in Favras’s elimination — he was executed the day after sentence — were his fellow conspirators and other sympathetic members of the royalist party. (Future-Louis XVIII hurriedly washed his hands of the scheme.) These were quite pleased to suppress any wider exploration of

the project that this lost child of royalist enthusiasm had formed in the interest of the royal family. Among those participating in this project, but with a cowardice that is well known, were persons that an important consideration prevented from naming at the time.*

You’ve got to look forward, not back.

Despite the mob scene surrounding him as he carried his damning information to the grave, Favras had the sang-froid to remark upon being handed a copy of the order for his execution, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

“It can be said,” wrote Camille Desmoulins, “that all the aristocrats have been hung through him.”

And since they did such a metaphorically comprehensive job through this single unfortunate, it’s no wonder that Favras was the only aristocrat executed for counterrevolutionary activity during the entire first three years of the Revolution.*

* Barry Shapiro, “Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition,” French Historical Studies, Spring 1992.

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1714: Maria Mouton and her slave Titus, lovers

1 comment September 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1714, a slave and his mistress — “mistress” in both senses of the word — were put to death in the Dutch Cape Colony for murdering her husband.

Marie or Maria Mouton had arrived in South Africa in 1699 as a nine-year-old with a refugee Huguenot family.

A decade and a half’s passage finds her a young woman wed to one Franz or Frans Joost/Jooste/Joostens, to whom she bore two sons … and, evidently, a homicidal grudge.

Early in 1714, Maria and her lover, a slave named Titus Bengale, murdered Frans, in consequence of which crime,

[s]he [Maria] is sentenced to be half strangled, after that to be scorched,* and after that strangled unto death. Titus to be empaled and to remain so, until death. After that his head and right hand are to be cut off and fixed on a pole, beyond the limits of his late master’s property. Fortuin, an accomplice, is also to have his right hand cut off, and without receiving the coup de grace, is to be broken on the wheel. After that he is to be placed on a grating until death takes place. After that his head is to be cut off, and with his hand placed on a pole, together with the head and hand of Titus. After that the bodies are to be taken to the outside place of execution, and there left exposed to the air and the vultures.

She’s the only white woman to be executed in 18th century South Africa.

Our Precise of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope** notices that Titus, despite enduring his grotesque execution for two full days before succumbing, remained terribly jocund amid his public torture. (Not unlike other slaves tortured to death in Dutch colonies):

September 3 — The slave Titus, above mentioned, died about midday, having lived in his misery about 48 hours; something horrible to think of, to say nothing of personally beholding the misery. It is said that 4 hours after his empalement he received a bottle of arrack from which he drank freely and heartily. When advised not to take too much, lest he should get drunk, he answered that it did not matter, as he sat fast enough, and that there was no fear of his falling. It is true that whilst sitting in that deplorable state, he often joked, and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman. A way of dying, lauded by the Romans, but damnable among the Christians.

This case is discussed in more detail by Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002) — here’s an excerpt — and by the same author in Rogues, Rebels and Runaways: Eighteenth-Century Cape Characters.

* Literally, blaker. “To ‘blaker’ someone,” notes Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002), “was to hold burning straw to their face and to blacken it … a reference to the earlier practice of burning at the stake victims found guilty of heresy, witchcraft and sodomy. Surely we may also see, in the case of the blackening of Maria Mouton, a reference to her crime of cohabiting with slaves.”

** After another slaveowner was murdered later in the year, the chronicle laments that “crime is rapidly assuming large dimensions, in spite of the means used to prevent or suppress it. A clear proof that this Colony mainly consists of evil disposed, head-strong slaves and the refuse of convicts.”

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1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman

2 comments August 13th, 2010 Headsman

On or around this date in 1776,* a couple of blacks in Suriname (both slave and free) were executed for unrelated crimes … notably a free man named Neptune whose coolness under horrific torture is related by John Gabriel Stedman in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.

Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.

Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.

Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo

If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.

But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …

Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.

The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.

Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: "At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint." -ed. ]

Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.


Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)

If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.

I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.

Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.

The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)

But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)

* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.

The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.

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1901: “Black Jack” Tom Ketchum, who was left in three pieces

12 comments April 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1901, a two-bit outlaw from a vanishing frontier made his reservations for hell.

Tom Ketchum — who had become known as “Black Jack” when misidentified with another hombre he resembled — was the last man to hang in America for attempting to rob a train. Given the way the authorities in Clayton, N.M., conducted the job, that’s probably for the best.

This Texas-born outlaw enjoyed a colorful career in the 1890s Southwest plundering trains, killing folk, and other distinctively American pastimes. His name attaches to the [in]famous Hole in the Wall Gang.

He was finally caught attempting a dangerous one-man train robbery, when a conductor (taking part in his third stickup, and tired of being on the wrong end of the gunbarrel) got the drop on Ketchum and winged him with a shotgun. Too weakened by his injury to escape, Ketchum surrendered himself to the law, and his wounded arm to the surgeons.

The un-amputated remainder belonged to Clayton, N.M. — New Mexico Territory, that is, which was not yet a state at this time, but was keen on making an example to stanch the tide of train robberies.

(Formally, the charge that hung Ketchum was “felonious assault upon a railway train”; he was the only person executed for this offense before the Supreme Court decided that a hanging crime needed more victims than just an iron horse. This jurisprudential advance might not have done Black Jack very much good anyway, since neighboring Arizona had also put in an extradition request for murder.)

So far, so good.

Then, they actually dropped him.

When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit.

SOME MEN GROANED.

Some men groaned and others turned away, unable to endure the sight. For a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there half-doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent stream from the severed neck as the heart kept on with its mechanical beating. Then with cries of consternation the officers rushed down from the scaffold and lifted the body from the ground. It was only then apparent exactly what happened.

The drop of the body was seven feet and the noose was made so it slipped easily. Ketchum was a heavy man, and the weight of the body, with the easy-running noose, caused the rope to cut the head cleanly off. Dr. Slack pronounced life extinct a little over five minutes from the time the body dropped through the trap. It is stated too much of a drop was given for so heavy a man.

Just so we’re clear: a seven-foot drop is much, much too far for a man of Ketchum’s 190-plus pounds. Maybe they were distracted by rumors of an escape attempt.

The newspaper account above cites much more forgettable scaffold-talk from Ketchum, but we can’t help but find charm (and obviously, black humor) in his alleged last words,

I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!

Fictional? If so, they’re more like what Ketchum’s last words ought to be. Although let St. Peter‘s ledger reflect that Ketchum was a decent enough chap to post a letter to President McKinley on the morning of his own execution copping to several robberies for which other people were imprisoned.

Initially buried — naturally — at Clayton’s Boot Hill, this infernal denizen’s grave can now be found (and more than a century on, tourists and admirers do find it) at Clayton Memorial Cemetery.

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1983: John Eldon Smith, mafioso Willy Loman

3 comments December 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Georgia’s electric chair* got its first use in 19 years.

The Headsman is not a theologian, but does believe John Eldon Smith’s quotable last words

Well, the Lord is going to get another one.

– would be conditioned on the Lord’s policy on crimes like this:

Joseph [Ronald] Akins’ former wife, appellant Rebecca Akins Smith Machetti, together with her husband, appellant John Eldon Smith, a/k/a Anthony Isalldo Machetti, a/k/a Tony Machetti** … plotted the death of Joseph Akins with the intent of redeeming the proceeds of Akins’ insurance policies, and other benefits, the beneficiaries of which were Mrs. Machetti and her three daughters by her marriage to Akins … appellant Tony Machetti drove to Macon, Georgia … contacted Ronald Akins and lured him into the area of the crime, ostensibly to install a television antenna … when he and his wife arrived at the appointed time the appellant Tony Machetti killed both of them with a shotgun.

Trial testimony against Smith said that the insurance salesman was hoping with his shotgun-slaying prowess to become a made man.

And the supposed last words, it should be noted, are not apparent on the secret audio recording of the execution, available here, although the religious theme presents itself in the form of a Catholic benediction. The rest is all clinical efficiency, a far cry from the next year’s dreadful botch.

The Dec. 16, 1983 New York Times report — executions were still oddities that drew national coverage at this time — quoted a witness remarking on the “antiseptic and sterile” process, which the Times writer described thus:

A square of material was draped over Mr. Smith’s face and a leather-strapped cap containing an electrode was placed over his head.

So tightly was he strapped to the chair, witnesses said, it was difficult to tell when the three unidentified executioners pressed three small buttons, one of which sent 2,000 volts of electricity through the condemned man’s body for two minutes. According to prison tradition, none of the executioners knew if his was the lethal button.

Far more noteworthy than either the day’s procedure or its subject was the context of a noticeably accelerating execution pace.

From resumption of executions in 1977 through 1982, there had been only six people put to death in the U.S.; Smith capped a year with five more, including back-to-back days (Robert Wayne Williams had been electrocuted in Louisiana on December 14).

Anti-death penalty lawyer and activist Henry Schwarzschild was quoted in the article bemoaning “a new period where executions are utterly likely” and prophesying 30 to 50 in the year ahead thanks to prisoners’ appeals expiring.

There were, in the event, 21 American executions during the ensuing twelvemonth, almost tripling the country’s total up to that time; the annual total has never since 1983 returned to single digits.

* One of several electric chairs named “Old Sparky”

** The non-wiseguy name’s similarity to a John McCain alias is presumably pure coincidence.

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