Posts filed under 'Milestones'

1979: Julio Vargas Garayar, the last executed in Peru

Add comment January 20th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1979 saw the last use of capital punishment in Peru. An Air Force sergeant named Julio Vargas Garayar was shot for selling classified information under the military junta of Francisco Morales Bermudez.

Peru abolished the death penalty later that same year as part of its uneasy transition to civilian rule: the country’s 1979 constitution restricted the death penalty to state offenses during wartime: treason, genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, war crimes, and murder.

Although Peru in subsequent years has had its share of conflict and extrajudicial executions, it has never since conducted an official execution — notwithstanding Alan Garcia‘s mid-2000s rumblings about amending the constitution to reintroduce the death penalty for child rape.

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1821: Ketaukah and Kewahiskin, the first hangings in the Michigan Territory

Add comment December 27th, 2014 Headsman

From the Salem (Mass.) Gazette, Jan. 18, 1822.

Executions — Two Indians,* Ketaukah and Kewahiskin [elsewhere given as Kewaubis -ed.] were hanged at Detroit on the 27th ult. the former for the murder of Dr. W.S. Madison, the latter for the murder of Charles Ulrick.

The criminals (says the account) often acknowledged the justice of their sentence,** and in their way they had prepared themselves to meet its execution.

For several weeks past they appeared very anxious to obtain presents of tobacco, pipes, &c. none of which they used, but carefully laid them aside as an offering to the Great Spirit on the day of their death.

They had contrived a sort of drum, by drawing a piece of leather over the vessel that contained their drink, and often engaged in their solemn death dance. On the night previous to their execution, they continued their death dance to a very late hour, and commenced it again early in the morning.

They had been presented, among other things, with some red paint — with this they painted on the wall of their cell numerous figures of men, quadrupeds, reptiles, &c. — on their blankets were also painted many figures — among the rest, an Indian, hanging by the neck, was observed.

From the jail they were taken to the Protestant Church, where an appropriate discourse was delivered to the assemblage by Mr. J.S. Hudson (one of the gentlemen belonging to the Mission family).

They appeared throughout the whole of the solemn preparatory steps to be perfectly collected — they walked firmly to the gallows, and previously to ascending to the drop, shook hands with the Rev. Mr. Juvier, Mr. Hudson, the Sheriff and Marshal, and several other gentlemen who stood near them.

They ascended the steps of the drop in a manner peculiarly firm — after which, they asked, through the interpreter, the pardon of the surrounding spectators, for the crime they had committed.

They then shook hands and gazed for a few minutes on the assemblage and on the heavens, when their caps were drawn over their faces, and they were launched into eternity.

* Ketaukah was of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people, while Kewahiskin was a Menominee. (Source) The two men were not associates of each other prior to their shared condemnation, and their crimes were completely unrelated.

** Be that as it may, Ketaukah tested the jurisdiction of the Territorial Court (Michigan had not yet been admitted to statehood). He argued (like Tommy Jemmy in New York) that Anglo juries had no jurisdiction over his crime, which had been committed against a white doctor on Winnebago land. He also demanded the inclusion of Indians on the jury; complications of a potential language barrier within the jury pool, and the matter of whether an interpreter’s presence at jury deliberations would vitiate the verdict, defeated that motion. (For the jurisdictional question, see American Indians and State Law: Sovereignty, Race, and Citizenship, 1790-1880. For the jury composition, see the footnote on page 123 of this masters thesis.)

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1960: Anthony Miller, the last hanged at Barlinnie

1 comment December 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1960, 19-year-old Anthony Miller became the 10th and last person executed at Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison.*

Miller worked in a team with a 16-year-old accomplice in a “queer-rolling” racket: the younger James Denovan would lure a mark with the promise of an assignation, then Miller would jump him and turn a 2-against-1 robbery. Artless, but effective.

With such a crude m.o., it’s no wonder Miller and Denovan beat a man all the way to death in the course of one of their shake-downs. Since he was a minor, Denovan drew a prison term. Miller … not so lucky. His plaintive last words, “Please, Mister …” form the title of a play about his life written by Patrick Harkins.

Tour Barlinnie’s capital punishment environs with one of its old death-watch officers in this David Graham Scott short film, “Hanging With Frank”:

David Graham Scott was good enough to share some firsthand recollections of the film’s title character Frank McKue, and the process of producing “Hanging With Frank”.

Frank McKue was an extremely likeable chap with a very dark sense of humour. Definitely my type of guy. Used to have a drink with him at his local pub in Edinburgh called ‘The Diggers Arms’ (called as such because local gravediggers would drink there) . The sound of the trapdoor swinging open that you hear in the film is actually the door to the beer cellar crashing open in the pub which I recorded as a foley. Frank said it was almost the exact sound! Since the trapdoor in the execution chamber at Barlinnie Prison was shored up and unable to open when we visited it seemed a logical idea to use this nice little soundbite.

Incidentally, the prison that we were filming was still (and still is) very much in operation. There are some shots where you can see prisoners moving about in the upper galleries. It’s Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland and dates from the Victorian era. Frank worked there in the 50s as a prison officer who occasionally did deathwatch details. That involved sitting with the condemned man on his last nights and drinking tea, engaging him in conversation and playing draughts [checkers in the U.S.].

Frank showed how the prison officer’s escorting the condemned man would walk a few paces across the gallery and through the doors into the execution chamber.

They’d stand on planks placed over the trapdoors …

… and hold onto safety ropes dangling from the ceiling to stop them from falling down with the prisoner. There had been various instances in the past of prison guards and assistant executioners falling through the trapdoors with the condemned man.

The deathwatch officers would sit with the condemned prisoner at all times after sentence was pronounced. Cups of tea, mingled with small-talk and endless games of draughts and they just chatted away about everything ‘except the obvious’! Their job on the morning of the execution was to escort the condemned man out of his cell (which was actually two normal sized cells knocked into one) and into the execution chamber just a few paces across the gallery in D-Hall of the prison. They steadied the man as the executioner led the way onto the scaffold and the assistant helped buckle his wrists and feet with leather straps when they reached the correct position on the trapdoors. A signal from the assistant to the executioner sent the man on his downward journey to the basement below where the mortuary slab awaited.

The positioning of the noose was crucial for a clean break between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae The rope always did a quarter turn to throw back the head and cleanly sever the spinal column at those points and the hangman treated the affair with diligence and extreme reverence. Frank would then often sit with the executioner and assistants as they had their breakfast and left the executed man dangling for a full hour. The prisoner was then pulled back up, the noose removed and then he was lowered back down with other ropes to the basement room again where he was stripped and laid on the mortuary slab. The body ‘belonged to the state so it was buried within the prison grounds’ and no relative was allowed to visit the grave site or send flowers.

I storyboarded much of the film due to the restrictions of time, the nature of the equipment we were using and, of course, the mood I was trying to evoke. I also used black and white, grainy, light-sensitive film stock to try and get the feel of the execution facility in its heyday of the 1950s. If I had more money and time I would have made this film about 10 minutes longer but alas it was not to be. There was always the odd event that we shot spur-of-the-moment. Like when I noticed a butterfly trying to escape from the window of the execution chamber. In this space it took on quite a metaphorical aspect as it struggled desperately and futilely against the glass. Strangely, there was a large group of them roosting on the ceiling. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life and have no idea why they were acting like this. There were also mounds of pigeon droppings too which we tried to avoid as best we could (it can be quite toxic when breathed in). There’s a very brief shot in the film of two pigeon chicks which were nested snugly within a cavity of the execution beam … another bizarre metaphor about death and resurrection, I guess.

When we visited there were major renovations taking place within D-Hall and, as we see in the film, the condemned cell and execution chamber were torn apart. Even the grave sites were not spared. Drainage for the new toilets being built (this was the end of the notorious slop-out era) actually passed through the graves of the executed men. Indignity upon indignity heaped upon these pathetic corpses with each flush of the toilet. The graves had been marked with initials to denote where each of the murderers lay but these had been removed at some point as if to completely erase any trace of them. Frank knew exactly where each lay though and reeled them off one by one. He told me about the way the coffins were designed with a hinged flap over the face of the dead man. Once sealed in the coffin with quicklime scattered over him, Frank would open the flap and add water over the face of the executed prisoner to hasten the destruction of the body. The grave was then filled back in. One of the graves was forever sinking and had to be refilled with ashes from the boiler house on a regular basis. It was the grave of James Robertson, a former policeman who had run over and killed his lover in 1950. He was duly executed for the cold-blooded murder but it was as if his body was restless in the grave the way the tarmac kept on sinking down. In refilling the grave Frank told me that the body seemed to be miraculously well preserved and that somehow the quicklime designed to dissolve it had had the very opposite effect! The prisoners on that grave-filling detail were often terrified and were offered extra perks like cigarettes to make it a bit easier for them. To this very day that same grave is still sinking for some odd reason … the depression in the tarmac can be clearly seen in the film.

There were many stories that Frank related to me about his good friend Albert Pierrepoint, who he befriended during his time at Barlinnie Prison. Pierrepoint was the famous British state executioner at that time and conducted various executions throughout the entire United Kingdom. Frank kept up his friendship with Albert way after capital punishment was abolished and used to visit his pub in Manchester called ‘Help the Poor Struggler’. At his home in the west side of Edinburgh, Frank proudly showed me his various bits of execution related paraphernalia.

One of the prize exhibits was an engraved glass from the Albert’s pub. There was also an amazingly detailed scaled down model of the Delaware gallows which his retired carpenter friend and fellow execution enthusiast, Sudsy, had made for him. Frank showed me with great relish how this unique hanging apparatus would operate. It was obvious that he wanted more than mere models to play with and his real ambition was to be the British state executioner. He had contacted the British Home Office to put his name down as one of the persons willing to train as a state executioner should capital punishment come back. There was no way he’d be getting that job at the time I met him though as he’d already undergone a major operation and had a pig’s heart valve sewn into him. I felt guilty asking Frank to climb the rungs of the ladder into the beam room for a third take, I recall. He was happy to do it but breathless by the end! I thought how awful it would have been, and ironic, if he’d died within this space he loved so much.

But it seems that within the film Frank does fulfill the dual role of hangman and condemned man. The two aspects merged into one at the crowning moment as he puts the bag over his own head — a touch that I thought might be ridiculous at first but somehow does work quite well in the finished film.

Alas for Frank the calling to be a state executioner never came to happen and he died in 2008 from heart complications. Hanging with Frank will remain his legacy, however. A film as much a character study as it is a piece of history. [See more movie stills here -ed.]

I made this film with very little funding indeed and despite its receiving various accolades over the years the government funded film agency in Scotland at the time, The Scottish Film Council, refused to send it to film festivals as it was deemed distasteful. My work has frequently led me to being despised by the powers that be in the largely straight-laced documentary scene … I must be doing something right I suppose!

* Not to be confused with the last executed in Scotland full stop. Miller was the second-last in Scotland.

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1964: Glen Sabre Valance, the last hanged in South Australia

2 comments November 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Glen Sabre Valance became the last person hanged in South Australia.

Born Paul Fraser, he jazzed up the handle by cribbing the surname of the title outlaw from the 1962 John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Like that Lee Marvin cutthroat, “Glen Valance” was destined to live a brutal life with a violent end.

In the early morning of 16 June 1964, the 21-year-old Valance broke into the home of his former employer, Richard Strang. He had a standing dispute with the Bordertown farmer over wages but his real grudge ran deeper than that. Strang had bemusedly read the sensitive youth’s diary to other farmhands weeks before, resulting in an altercation — and, after Valance drove off with some of his effects, a police report and an arrest.

Valance nursed “bad thoughts” against his tormenter, he muttered to his family. They turned out worse than anyone could have expected: bad enough to justify his adopted alias.

As Strang and his wife dozed in bed, Valance leveled his rifle at the hated ex-boss, and leveled the score. Then he seized the waking Suzanne Strang and raped her there in the bed sodden with the gore of her husband’s warm corpse.

As Valance hightailed it out of Kooroon Station, Suzanne Strang phoned police — and the resulting roadblocks snared the murderer that very day, with the murder weapon right there in the passenger seat … actually riding shotgun. Valance mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense.

In 2011, Lillian Clavell — ten years old at the time of her half-brother’s execution — published a book, A Tormented Soul: The Tragic Life of Glen Sabre Valance, the Last Man to be Hanged in South Australia.

In it, a Clavell still affectionate for her big brother points to their savagely abusive mother as the root cause of the adult Paul/Glen’s horrific crime. (Lillian says that her father shielded her from the worst of any domestic violence, but Paul had no father in his life and no such protection.)

I know she burnt his hands on the stove. I know she put his face through a window. Once she held a knife to his throat and said she’d kill him if he ever stole anything from the cupboard again. I believe that (abuse) led very much to his crime.

Valance was hanged in an unused guard tower (the “Hanging Tower”) of Adelaide Gaol. The facility is unused today, but the date November 24, 1964 and the letters GSV still remain printed on the brick wall.

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1864: Franz Muller, “Ich habe es getan”

1 comment November 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, German tailor Franz Muller hanged before an unruly London mob estimated near 50,000 angry souls.

Muller was among Britain’s last public hangings, before executions disappeared behind prison walls four years later. But what he’d done was a first, and father to a legion of detective novels and dinner theater: Muller committed the first murder on a British train.

Certainly Muller’s motive was as pedestrian as his locomotion was unusual, for the victim was a 69-year-old banker who was relieved of a gold watch and gold spectacles, then pitched out of his compartment onto an embankment on a North London commuter train.

This operation was facilitated and — so conceived a public that was spellbound by the crime — poor Mr. Thomas Briggs’s escape prevented by the then-prevalent use of the compartment coach, a railcar design without any interior corridor communicating between the berths. As each compartment opened only to the outside, passengers were stuck in their rooms between stations (and ticket-takers had to scuttle hazardously along exterior running-boards). Known in much of Europe as the English coach, these designs would quickly lose popularity thanks in part to this very affair.*

In a sense, these spaces just translated into the industrial era the age-old terrors that stalked travelers. It must be this that accounts for the extraordinary interest the public took in Briggs and Muller: in a sealed compartment, face to face with a desperate man, one would be as nakedly vulnerable as the lone rider on the roads of yesteryear quailing at the shadow of Dick Turpin. London businessmen did not expect such harrowing encounters on their daily commute.

A reward soon yielded a tip that put police onto this working-class immigrant Muller — the man sure ticked every box for a proper moral panic — who had dropped into a Cheapside jeweler’s** shop two days after the murder to exchange a gold chain (later identified as Briggs’s chain), and hopped a ship to New York soon thereafter. Inspectors took a faster ship and beat him to the Big Apple. He still had Briggs’s watch and top hat on his person, the latter ingeniously cut down.†

In a recent book about Briggs’s murder, Kate Colquhoun argues that despite the verdict, Britons “never quite felt they got to the bottom of” why the murder occurred. It’s commonly supposed that Muller didn’t intend to slay his victim and perhaps didn’t even realize he had done so.

Muller’s disarmingly amiable personality contrasted sharply with the circumstantial but persuasive evidence of a violent bandit; he struck the men who awaited him in New York as having been genuinely surprised by his arrest. Muller himself denied his guilt throughout a breathlessly reported three-day trial and even pressed for a stay of execution claiming to have developed new evidence of his innocence.

There was no stay, and only at the very last moment before the drop fell did the condemned youth succumb to the pressure of the German-speaking Lutheran clergyman who had been his companion in the last days to confess himself of the crime with the words Ich habe es getan.

Rev. Louis Cappel, whose immediate public announcement of this solemn unburdening played better as theater than as ministry, later explained in a letter to the London Times‡ (Nov. 16, 1864) that

the unhappy man declared he was innocent not while, but before, the Sacrament was being administered to him. Soon after entering his cell on the last morning I asked Muller again whether he was guilty of this murder. He denied it. I then said, “Muller, the moments are precious; we must turn our minds wholly to God; I shall question you no more about this, but my last words to you will be, ‘Are you innocent?'”

He remained silent for a minute or two, but presently exclaimed, his eyes full of tears, and clasping his arms round my neck, “Do not forsake me; stay with me to the last.”

* As a stopgap safety measure in the following years, before the widespread introduction of cars with interior corridors, existing compartment coaches were fitted with peepholes (called “Muller’s lights”) between compartments as well as wires enabling passengers to ring the alarm

** Submitted without comment: the jeweler’s name was John Death.

† Muller’s truncated-top-hat design actually enjoyed a brief fashion vogue that became named for him as a “Muller cut-down”.

‡ Consonant with the growing elite consensus on the matter, half the Times‘ execution coverage — a full column and a half of newsprint — was dedicated to excoriating the “lawless ruffianism” of the jeering hang-day mob.

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1964: Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo

2 comments November 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1964, anti-apartheid fighters Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo went to the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison — the first three members of the African National Congress’s military arm to be executed by apartheid South Africa.

In 1960, on the 21st of March — a date still kept as South Africa’s Human Rights Day, and worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — white police gunned down 69 black civilians protesting

After the Sharpeville Massacre the struggle over racial apartheid in South Africa escalated to a much more violent plane.

Protests throughout South Africa following Sharpeville led the white government to declare a state of emergency and begin rounding up thousands of regime opponents. Pretoria also immediately outlaws the leading black resistance organizations, the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress.

Driven underground, both PAC and ANC spun off military wings in 1961 to meet force with force.

We have already visited the “Langa Six”, members of the PAC’s Poqo.

Shortly thereafter, on December 16, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” in Zulu, but better known simply as “MK”) announced its advent with placards in city streets.

The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.

MK conducted its first dynamite attacks that very evening in Port Elizabeth; over the ensuing 18 months, it carried out more than 200 bombings and other acts of sabotage against the facilities of the apartheid state: train tracks, power stations, telephone wires, offices.

A security crackdown naturally ensued.* By 1963, the white government had managed to expose and arrest three-quarters of MK’s regional Eastern Cape High Command. Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba were all swiftly condemned on multiple counts of sabotage plus one of murdering a police informant. International appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears; one fellow-traveler later remembered the men taking leave of their fellow-prisoners in a haunting song.**

“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near … It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards. And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga’s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section.

* It was during this crackdown that future president Nelson Mandela was rolled up. Mandela had helped to found MK.

** According to The Road to Democracy in South Africa, 1960-1970, the song was Mini’s own composition titled “Pasop — nants’in-dod’inyama, Verwoerd” (“Watch out, here is the African man, Verwoerd!”). If it is available online, I have not been able to find it.

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1943: Antoni Areny, the last executed in Andorra

Add comment October 18th, 2014 Headsman

For murdering his two brothers, Antoni Areny was executed on this date in 1943 in Andorra — that country’s first and only execution since the 19th century.

The tiny Pyrenees principality, neutral in the continental war raging at that time, had many years before followed its neighbor Spain in adopting the garrote as its execution method. But the method being so long out of practice no satisfactory garrote executioner could be found to administer the punishment, so Areny was instead put to death by firing squad.

Andorra has the incidental distinction of being the last country in the world officially to discard the garrote as an execution method — in 1990, when Andoraa abolished the death penalty full stop.


Andorra’s capital city Andorra la Vella. (cc) image from Isaac Torrontera.

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1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed, was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our own jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1731: Catherine Repond, the last witch burned in Switzerland

Add comment September 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Catherine (or Catillon) Repond was burned at the stake in Freiburg — the last person executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, more or less.*

Repond (English Wikipedia entry | the somewhat more detailed German) got caught out on some serious crazy.

A bailiff named Montenach while out hunting near Lake Gryere claimed to have wounded a fox on the foot, which shouted back at him in a human voice as it scampered away. Later, Repond, a 68-year-old vagabond with a pre-existing witchcraft reputation, turned up at a nearby farm where she sometimes hired out for odd jobs. Repond had a foot injury just like the fox.


It would be irresponsible not to speculate. (Image via SomethingAwful.com)

Montenach arrested and tortured Repond on this basis, aggravating the demonaic-shapeshifter charge with villager superstitions that the old crone wrecked their cheeses and blighted their herds. As late as the date was, this still conformed to the old witch-burning pattern of yestercentury, where idle gossip became evidence once some luckless person entered into an official investigation — evidence that thumbscrews would then confirm. She was transferred to Fribourg for execution.

It’s never been completely clear just why this one particular case navigated the Age of Enlightenment all the way to the stake — whether that was just the breaks, or if there was some larger interest at work that made Repond’s mouth worth closing.

Fribourg, in any event, adopted a 2009 resolution expressing regret for the execution, although it declined to issue a formal exoneration on the grounds that as the state itself was several times discontinuous with the one that put the “witch” to death, such a gesture would be intrinsically meaningless.


A fountain in the village of Gibloux pays tribute to the area’s resident hag. From this French pdf all about the curious case of Catillon.

* Anna Göldi is the conventionally recognized “last witch executed in Switzerland,” and even the last in all of Europe — she has her own museum and everything. But if you want to split hairs about it, Göldi was accused as a witch and tortured as a witch but her formal judicial condemnation was “merely” on the basis of poisoning (accomplished by witchcraft). Not a distinction with a great deal of difference for Göldi, or Repond for that matter, but there it is. Since Göldi was beheaded, Repond does have the sure consolation of ranking the last Swiss burned for witchcraft. (Although as was often the practice, Repond was mercifully strangled at the stake in preference to literally burning her to death.)

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1944: Three Soviet infiltrators, the last in Finland

Add comment September 3rd, 2014 Headsman

The last executions in Finland occurred on this date in 1944, claiming the lives of three Soviet spies who had been parachuted behind Finnish lines.

I have been unable to locate the names of these men. They’re invariably presented simply in connection with — or as the denouement following — the September 2 execution of Finnish deserter Olavi Laiho.

The next morning (Russian link), Finland announced its disengagement from its problematic German alliance, an arrangement brokered by the western Allies who wanted to keep Finland democratic and non-communist despite sitting in Russia’s back yard and joining the wrong team in World War II. The Soviet Union immediately redeployed its forces away from the Finnish theater; a formal armistice was signed before September was out and prisoner transfers began in October.

Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.

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