Category Archives: Mass Executions

1789: Five wheelbarrow men

John Byrns (aka Francis Burns), John Bennet, Daniel Cronan, John Ferguson (aka John Taylor) and John Logan* hanged in Philadelphia on this date in 1789.

The offenders were “wheelbarrow men,” which in the idiolect specific to late 1780s Pennsylvania denoted prisoners who were detailed, in order “to correct and reform offenders, and to produce such strong impressions on the minds of others as to deter them from committing the like offences,” to suffer “continued hard labour publicly and disgracefully imposed.”

As its own text declares, the 1786 statute creating this class was a part of Pennsylvania’s avant-garde move towards a penitential penal philosophy, with a corresponding reduction in capital sentences for property crimes: Pennsylvania had hanged about 40 people for mere robbery or burglary in the preceding decade. As explained by Louis Masur’s Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (which is also our source for the count of hanged thieves), “in 1786, most almanacs in Philadelphia and elsewhere included the proverb that industry promoted virtue.”

It became readily apparent, however, that the “wheelbarrow law” neither reformed the prisoners nor prevented vice. Indeed, it seemed to many that the convicts became even more licentious and that unprecedented amounts of criminal activity infested the community.

Such prisoners were “subjects of great terror, even while chained” given these walking spectacles’ notorious dissolution, and still worse their propensity for fleeing their wheelbarrows to become desperate fugitives. Pennsylvania newspapers from this era have an alarming quantity of notices published by gaolers warning of escaped wheelbarrow men … and not a few reports of actual or suspected crimes committed by them. For example …


Philadelphia Mercury, Oct. 23, 1788.

New-Hampshire Spy, Dec. 2, 1788.

By the time full 30 wheelbarrow-men escaped on a single night in October 1788, elite opinion had turned solidly against this disastrous experiment, and the law would be repealed by 1790 — substituting for public shaming the penitential benefits imposed solitude. But before the wheelbarrow men had disappeared into historical curiosity, our five of them in September 1789 robbed and also murdered a man named John McFarland in his home on Philadelphia’s Market Street.


New York Daily Gazette, Sep. 25, 1789.

* Quite a few Johns about down the years.

1871: Eugen Kvaternik, for the Rakovica revolt

On this date in 1871, Eugen Kvaternik and a number of companions were shot as rebels.

A patriot who had long aspired to detach Croatia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kvaternik (English Wikipedia entry | Croatian) found enough traction to give it a go during the late 19th century’s rise of swirling nationalist rivalries.

His Rakovica Revolt, named after the village where Kvaternik announced the Croatian People’s Republic on October 7, 1871, was speedily crushed, however. Kvaternik’s rebels routed on the 10th with the appearance of a federal army and the arrests began forthwith.

On October 11, a military tribunal sentenced Kvaternik and various comrades to death — sentences that were implemented immediately by musketry. Today, there are streets and city squares in independent Croatia named to Kvaternik’s honor.


The Killings of Rakovica (Death of Eugen Kvaternik), by Oton Ivekovic.