Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.
The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.
As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.
Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.
Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.
In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.
Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.
Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.
military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.
This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.
Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.
Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.
Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*
(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.
Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)
Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.
Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.
And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.
After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)
Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.
As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…
The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.
Actum ut supra.
B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)
* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.
** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.
† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.
However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”
Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,
were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …
The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.
Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.
On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.
John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.
Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.
The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.
Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”
“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.
Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.
By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.
At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.
The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.
Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.
As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.
In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.
In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.
The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:
The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.
At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.
Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.
The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)
At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.
Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”
Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.
Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”
Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)
Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.
The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.
in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.
Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.
* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.
As it was put by the sadly defunct Shot At Dawn site (still preserved at the Wayback Machine), “The cemetery register of Poperinghe New Military Cemetery states that Lt. Eric Skeffington Poole died of wounds on 10 December 1916. Tactfully, it omits to record also that his death was caused by a British Army firing squad.”
A Canadian-born engineer, Poole had enlisted in the very first weeks of the war and been commissioned an officer by May 1915.
In July of 1916, a falling artillery shell struck so close that its concussion knocked Poole down, spattering him with earth. He was hospitalized for shellshock but returned to duty in September — still complaining of rheumatism and feeling “damned bad.”
One night in October as his unit moved up to a forward trench, Poole disappeared from it — nobody knows how or when, but he wasn’t there when it mustered at its new position at midnight. He was detained two days later, wandering well west of the trenches, a leather jacket hiding his private’s tunic … “in a very dazed condition,” an officer who interviewed him would later remember. “From conversation which I had with him I came to the conclusion he was not responsible for his actions. He was very confused indeed.”
Evidence collected in Poole’s desertion trial pointed to a man taxed beyond his capacities by command responsibility and the strain of two years at war. His division commander recommended against the court martial, for Poole was “not really accountable for his actions. He is of nervous temperament, useless in action, and dangerous as an example to the men” — but still “could [be] usefully employed at home in instructional duties or in any minor administrative work, not involving severe strain of the nerves.” Another captain in his battalion described him as “somewhat eccentric, and markedly lacking in decision” and liable under pressure to “become so mentally confused that he would not be responsible for his actions.”
By the book the man’s irresolute midnight ramble was a clear instance of abdicating duty, but Poole’s weakness was apparent enough to trouble the court that tried him for desertion — not only to solicit this and other testimony from his comrades about the lieutenant’s state of mind but even to remark from its own observation that his “mental powers [were] less than average. He appears dull under cross examination, and his perception is slow.” Perhaps this was fellow-feeling by other officers that would not have been extended to a mere grunt; if so, what was a mitigating consideration for the court made Poole’s execution a in the eyes of Field Marshal Haig: “Such a case is more serious in the case of an officer than a man, and it is also highly important that all ranks should realise the law is the same for an officer as a private.” Two years in, and somehow not one officer had suffered such a punishment; Shot At Dawn speculated that military courts’ recent shocking verdict excusing Captain John Bowen-Colthurst on grounds of insanity for an atrocity in Ireland had also raised pressure on the armed forces to show that British officers stood not above the law.*
The British army executed 306 of its own soldiers during World War I. Among them, Poole was the first of only three officers.
* The War Office’s decision not to publicize his fate (and the euphemistic reference in the cemetery register) would seem sharply at odds with any intended demonstrative effect.
Though it was hardly commonly enforced in this way — and it’s obvious from these pamphlets that it was the political pull of the groom’s family that doomed our Edward Shuel or Sewell — Ireland indeed had a real Marriage Act that made it a capital crime to officiate an interconfessional wedding, an act that persisted into the 19th century. It was the product of a campaign by to “de-Catholicize” Ireland that also included a wide variety of other encumbrances upon Catholics, and likewise upon Protestants who failed to shun them — such as disenfranchising Protestants with Catholic wives.
This case, scandalous in its own time, inspired Dublin’s rival broadside publishers to churn out multiple scandal sheets to service the appetite of a voracious public.
Edward Shuel, in “his own” words:
The Genuine Declaration of Edward Shuel
a degraded Clergyman of the Church of Ireland, who is to be Executed near St. Stephens Green, this present Saturday being the 29th of this Instant November 1740. For celebrating the Clandestine Marriage of one Mr. Walker a Protestant, to Margaret Talbot a suppos’d Catholick, on Sunday the 16th of August last, at the World’s End near Dublin.
I might reasonably have expected my Life wou’d have been saved, having obtain’d a Reprieve; but there being a Point of —– Policy strongly against me, to fulfill which I must Resign this Life sooner than Nature or Accident might have otherwise taken it. I must confess tho’ I strove to bear my Sentence with the utmost Resignation and Christian Patience; yet the imbitter’d Reports of my having two Wives tingeing my Character, affected me in some Measure; and in order to clear such infamous and malicious Aspertions which my Enemies (whom the Origin of Heaven and Earth forgive) which I heartily pray for.
To be Concise, I was Born in the North of Ireland, and bred up in the University of Dublin, where I pursued my Studies, and behav’d as became a Student: Having received Orders, I officiated in the Curacy of Carlingford, St. Michans, Christ Church Dublin, and several others Places; where I behav’d as a Gentleman, and suitable to my Function; untill most unfortunately a vile Woman prostituted herself, and seduced me to her dire Embraces; upon which she Reported that I Married my self to her, which is utterly false; and in Order to acquit my self of that Calumny, of Marrying her my self, and fully to extirpate the publick Notion of my having two Wives, I went to Georges Church near Dublin, and there received the Eucharist that I never was Married or Contracted to any Woman under Heaven, but to the Woman now my unhappy Wife, by whom I have two innocent but unfortunate Babes, of which I got a Certificate from the Minister of said Church, which I gave to his Grace _____ which must be acknowledg’d.
The Nature of the Crime for which I am to undergo this most Publick and scandalous Death, is notorious in this Kingdom. The Manner in which I now a poor and unhappy Sufferer was precipitately led into it is, that on the 16th of August last, one Richard Walker came in Disguise in a poor Habit, under the fictitious Name of Wilson, with one Margaret Talbot and another Woman in Company, who intreated me to Marry them: After I had examined them, and swearing them on the Book, who swore they were Protestants; and I believing Richard Wilson as he called himself, to be a Tradesman of no Fortune or Birth, and in his own Power, and I wanting of Support; my Children having not even Bread to Eat that Night, I unfortunately married them ’tis true, for which I received from Wilson Six Shillings and Six Pence.
But had I surmised he had been the Son of the Man he was, or any other Person of Credits Son, I would not for any Consideration have perform’d the Ceremoney, [sic] Nay, I would have sent to the Parents or next Relation and detected him, and at the same time given up the Woman, to the just resentment of the injur’d Parents.
‘Tis true I was degraded and by that Means render’d incapable of supporting an helpless Family; nor was it in my Power to get a Livelihood by Teaching School, for any attempts I made that way which prov’d Abortive, Work either Mechanical or otherwise I was ignorant of; and by my infirmities render’d if capable not to follow it, to beg publickly I was a shame’d, and very well knew the Amount of Charities to Street Beggars, privately I did beg by Petitions to many Persons whose Grants were small, and that but from a very few; and e’en those few wou’d not a second time assist the Wretched, this was my Case; what I then follow’d to support my Family was the Trade as its so call’d of Marrying; but always took care to examine strictly their Religion, Birth, and parentage, avoiding as much as possible to keep out of Disesteen of Families of Credit, so that it might not lie in their Powers to punish me, or to be griev’d at the undoing of their Children.
Yet all this Precaution has not hinder’d my unhappy Exit, which I hope this Calamity of mine, may be a perpetual Bar to others who are after me, who may be drove to the pressing Wants which I have often struggled with, but may God Support them.
O Lord Strengthen me to bear my Misfortunes, bless my Children and be to them a Father, and give them thy Grace, Comfort my Wife, and be to her a Husband, protect my Friends, and forgive my Enemies, and receive me into thy glorious Abode, and that I may this ‘Day sing Praises and Thanksgiving unto thy holy Name, ad infinitum, Amen.
Note. The above was deliv’d to the Printer hereof, in the Presence of Mr. Nelson and several others, in his own Hand Writing, and Word of Mouth.
Dublin: Printed in Montrath-Street, by Chr. Goulding Book-Seller.
The Last and True Speech of Mr. Sewell
a degraded Clergyman, who was executed last Saturday the 29th of November 1740, at St. Stephen’s-Green, for a clandestine Marriage delivered by him at the Place of Execution
Countrymen and Christians,
It may be thought, perhaps, that the Length of Time given me by the Clemency of the Lords Justice might turn my Thoughts to poor Transitory, Worldly Affairs, I hope thro’ the Merits of Christ I have not been affected so foolishly, for I will not boast, but will humbly hope, I have so numbered my Days as to apply my Heart unto Wisdom, for the Love of the Lord is the Beginning of it. I return to the Chief Governors of Ireland, the only Return I can make, my Thanks and Prayers for their Benignity in extending my shortning Length of Days to the present, in this World unhappy, but in the World, thro’ Christ, in the future, a Blessed Consummation. — Praise be to God on High Peace and Good Will amongst Men.
I am brought forth this Day, as a Precedent and Example to the Marriage Act, as a Sacrifice to its Rigor, the first, and I hope through the Almighty, the last of the kind that shall hereafter be read of in the Annals of the Holy Catholick and Reform’d Protestant Church; nor is it the smallest Pang that I feel in this solemn Anguish of my Spirit that my Memory shall reflect some Disgrace upon my Reverend, Learned and Pious surviving and future Brethern [sic] of the Ministry. Could Worldly Things now amuse or disturb my Mind, I might also be touch’d with a Sense of the Triumph, my unhappy Catastrophe, must give to the Enemies of the Establish’d Religion; but in this, as in all Things else in Heaven and Earth, the Will of the All Powerful and Eternal Father be done, yet let them consider that the Man, the poor weak Man transgress’d and not the Function; let them think that the Transgressor suffer’d, and with his Blood wash’d away Polution [sic] from the Sanctuary. The blessed Twelve should not be blamed for their fallen Member, nor should the Body of the Clergy be reproached for one wretched, sinful, misguided, but thro’ Grace repentant Brother.
Speeches and Declarations are a Custom I know observed by People in my wretched Circumstances; but this has no Influence on me, I only promulgate these few Lines to prevent many gross and ignorant Pieces of Print which may be ascribed to me, when I am past the Power of contradicting such Falshoods. [sic] I am, bless’d be my Saviour, in universal Charity with the World, and therefore neither Bitterness nor Untruth shall fall from me: I am convinced, as my Condition is particular and my self remarkable, the World will be desirous to know what I may say either in defence of myself, or Attenuation of the Crime for which I die; I will therefore briefly go thorough the Heads of my Accusation and Conviction.
I confess that I did solemnize a Marriage between Walker and Talbot, but at the same Time I declare I did not suspect that he was any other than an ordinary working young Man, and not the Son of one of so much Consequence in the City. I had their Oath of Secrecy and an Assurance of their both being of the Protestant Religion, but he appear’d as an Evidence against me; Heaven forgive him and me, and for this Crime I lay down my Life. Were it worth a Moment of my little remaining Time, I might here controvert Margaret Talbot’s Marriage not within the Act, a Point of Law which I did but faintly Urge upon my Tryal: I might have pleaded the Inefficacy of my Degradation, the Indelibility of the Clerical Character, Validity of a Sentence pass’d by a Layman on a Person Canonical, and have spoken to an Appeal which I always apprehended was lodg’d in order to the Subversion of the Sentence of Degredation; [sic] but alas! they are Things below my Notice, for my Mind is above, and perhaps were I to illustrate on these Particulars, it may be construed either Indiscretion or Malice in a Dying Clergyman, and in my last Moments, what ever my past Life may be, I would not give Scandal to the Divine Function.
I acknowledge that I have been a frail weak Man, and that my Transgressions are numberless, and that I have done several unwarrantable and idle Things, inconsistant [sic] with the Character of a Gentleman, a Scholar, and a Divine, but let Man deal with me as I hope to be dealt with by my Heavenly Father, who will thro’ the Merits of Christ cast a Veil over my Sins, and blot out my Transgressions for ever.
I would Recommend to all Parents, with my dying Breath, a Resolution of never forcing the Dispositions of their Children, or thrusting them into a College with a View of the Pulpit, till they, if they are capable, or some Person of sound Judgment shall thoroughly examine if they have such Qualities, and Propensions as may fit them for such Office. On this Rock many Split, too many, and after some Years of Study, they come forth either contemptible for their Ignorance, or abhorr’d for their Vice. But, suppose them never so well endowed for the Ministry, the miserable Provision made for the Inferior Clergy, still more miserable by their Number, and their generally ill-judg’d Early Marriages throws them upon things which after endanger their Bread, and sometimes their Lives, of which I am a wretched Instance.
I beg that my wretched Family may not be Reproached with the Ignominy of my Death, to which I submit with Meekness, Resignation, and Resolution, hopeing [sic] that my Sufferings shall be Sanctified to me, and thro’ this Gulf of Darkness a Passage to Eternal light and Joy thro’ the Merits and Mediations of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to whom, with the Father and Holy Ghost be given all Praise and Worship now and ever more. Amen.
An Hymn Compos’d by the Reverend Mr. Sewell, while under Sentence in Newgate, and sung by him in the Coach as he went to Execution.
Oh Fountain of Eternal Light!
Oh glorious Lord of Host!
With Mercy view my wretched Plight,
Oh spare me or I’m lost.
Grim Death in all it’s [sic] Horrors dress’d
Is ever in my View,
Where is my Hope, now I’m oppress’d?
My only Hope is You.
Injutious Man has laid the Snare,
I’m fallen, alas, I’m caught,
Man drink my Blood, but Father spare
The Soul thy Son has bought.
And suffer not my Blood to reign
O’er his Posterity,
Oh God wash out the Scarlet Stain
And cleanse both him and me.
From Vengeance turn thy gracious Eye,
And see my throbbing Heart,
That melts at thy Divinity,
And feels and heavenly Smart.
And thou, O Son, who didst sustain
A Cross and shameful Death,
Who suffering more than mortal Pain
Groan’d out thy dying Breath.
Sustain me in the Hour of Death,
In the disgraceful Cart,
And when the Halter stops my Breath,
Save my Immortal Part.
Thou dost not judge like wretched Man,
For shoudst thou be severe
And all the Faults of Mortals scan,
Who cou’d thy Judgments bear.
Receive me Blessed Trinity,
Receive my Soul in Grace,
And in thy Kingdom let me be
When Times and Worlds shall cease.
The milestone subject’s name was Johan Alfred Ander, a failed hotelier and petty thief who, on January 5 of 1910, robbed a currency exchange outfit and in the process beat the clerk to death with a steelyard balance. As Ander had been casing his target from a nearby hotel whose own staff had grown suspicious of him, it didn’t take long to connect criminal to crime. An ample supply of incriminating booty in Ander’s possession (e.g., the beaten clerk’s wallet) confirmed the link.
Executions were already disappearing in Sweden at this point; by 1910, it had been a decade since the most recent one, ferry spree killer John Filip Nordlund. On the other hand, Sweden clearly anticipated repeat performances in the future because in the meantime it had ordered a guillotine. (Nordlund’s beheading was done by hand, by Albert Gustaf Dahlman, who also executed our man Ander.)
Ander never copped to the murder and refused to appeal for royal clemency.* Whether it was the savagery of the crime or the pride of its author, he was found a worthy candidate to interrupt the hiatus.
The ensuing Retreat from Mons scrambled the BEF, sprinkling the French countryside with stragglers, though there is little evidence that these men represented a trend towards wholesale desertion as against the disorder inherent to the retreat. The horrors of trench warfare still lay in the (very near) future but perhaps British commanders who aspired to put the Hun to jolly rout were already shaken by the dawning reality of a long and inglorious slog.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson once quipped. In Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson suggest that BEF Commander-in-Chief John French had become a bit unmanned by the punches the Germans had thrown at his beautiful army* and fired off the memo that would doom Thomas Highgate in an embarrassed panic.
The C in C views with grave displeasure the straggling which still continues … and has reason to think that in certain cases sufficient effort is not being made to rejoin units. … All ranks will in the event of being detached from their units use every effort to [rejoin] … and [will face] severe punishment if there is reason to suppose that every effort has not been made.
On September 5, Highgate slipped away from his unit to relieve himself, then just stayed away. “I got strolling about, went down into a farm, lay down in an empty house,” he would explain to his court-martial. (For whom Highgate’s inability to account for doffing his military duds played very ill.**) A few hours later, he had the rum luck to be found by a manor gamekeeper who happened to be a former British soldier. “I have lost my army,” Highgate declared, “and I mean to get out of it.” The private suggested to his judges that the sense of this remark was to express his intent to return (i.e., get out of the barn).
The court martial didn’t buy it: here was the public example to make as a sop to the boss’s anti-straggling ukase. There was little time wasted.
Highgate was condemned on the 6th, the death sentence endorsed by superior officers on the 7th, and it was carried into effect on the morning of the 8th — Highgate having the benefit of only 47 minutes’ advance notice, just enough time to scribble a tear-jerking “will” leaving the remains of his salary due to a girlfriend in Dublin. His execution was published in army orders a few days later — a little warning to the rest of the team.
* French would be relieved of BEF command in 1916.
** Dressing in civvies reads pretty badly, but slumming in more comfortable French peasant gear too was a (disturbingly, to the brass) common indiscipline in these days. Adrian Gilbert in Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914 quotes a cross directive of Brig. Gen. Forestier-Walker: “No unauthorized articles of dress should be allowed. Articles of civilian pattern are absolutely prohibited … The crime of throwing away clothing must be severely dealt with.” To be fair, Forestier-Walker had in mind ad hoc amendments to the gear, like tossing the army cap in favor of a shady straw hat, more so than wholesale wardrobe changes.
In a drama of curious names, Albany, New York hanged a gentleman named Whiting Sweeting on this date in 1791. He had slain Darius Quimby in the first recorded killing of a U.S. law enforcement officer in the line of duty.
Showing that needlessly aggressive police tactics are no modern innovation, Quimby put himself in harm’s way by doing the post-colonial equivalent of a no-knock raid.
He was not a regular policeman, but was deputized as part of a small ad hoc posse who attempted to arrest Sweeting on January 3 of that year on a warrant for possessing a stolen kettle.* Because 18th century, the bunch pregamed en route to the encounter by stopping to throw back some rum with buddies; at last arriving at Sweeting’s house in the evening they discovered the man absent and so followed his snowbound footprints into a dark wood.
This Cornell library page preserves several similar versions of original 1791 pamphlets about the case, which consist heavily of Sweeting’s own erudite writings. The testimony of the other constables themselves unanimously agrees that when they found Whiting they started yelling at him to surrender but never announced themselves as officers of the law conducting a legal arrest.
So to sum up, a howling drunken gang surprised Sweeting in an unlit wood, and he for some unaccountable reason resisted them. Brandishing a knife, he vowed to kill anyone who touched him. An empty threat, he would later claim, for he could perceive that he was completely outnumbered — but they would soon be words he would have preferred to take back.
As his pursuers closed in, Sweeting leaped from or was knocked off a rock where he’d been cornered — attempting to flee towards a nearby road, he said — and careened headlong into Quimby, with whom he grappled in the snow as the remainder of the posse piled on him. By the end of it, Quimby had a mortal wound from Sweeting’s knife. Say, didn’t you just threaten to do exactly that?
One might well look askance at Sweeting’s claim that Quimby conveniently fell on the knife that he was clutching as the two tussled; it would probably stand more consistent with the rest of his story had he fought back desperately believing he was being attacked or robbed. One of the arresting party claimed to have perceived, in the moonlit melee, Sweeting making a stabbing motion, an observation that led Sweeting in the commentary remarks he published about the trial to declaim against the shoddy and provocative performance of John Law in terms that would stand up awfully well for many a present-day encounter. Noting that the other posse members who appeared against him were self-interested to vindicate their own rum-buzzed behavior, they had dubiously claimed to have clearly seen and heard events “in a dark night, at some distance, in a hurry, pursuing a man, in a deep snow.”
I think it was said in court, I flew upon Quimby, tho’ it has been said by them he was upon me. If then they saw the arm of the uppermost man move, it was not mine. If they saw either move it must be difficult, if not impossible to determine which … considering we were both buried in the depth of the snow.
Would it not have deserved a moment’s thought whether a party of men having a lawful warrant and though cloathed with the authority of law, getting drunk and committing a riot, ought not to leave a doubt on the mind whether full faith and credit ought to be placed upon their testimony in a cause of life and death … Is it the common practice of a constable to collect such a number, to execute a trifling warrant — to come in such a riotous manner, with an intention to break doors, to take a man prisoner dead or alive?
If this is law, yet it must leave a suspicion, that those persons when called as witnesses respecting their own transaction, do not feel that coolness and calmness which witnesses ever ought to feel in matters of such importance.
Maybe this apt critique got someone chewed out behind closed doors, but it didn’t acquit him with the jury.
Sweeting did earn some public sympathy via a show of conspicuous piety and forgiveness in the weeks leading up to his execution. His remarks from jail dwell mostly on Scripture; while he insisted on his innocence to the last, the printed artifacts left for us evince little bitterness. According to a correspondent’s “Letter from Niagara” that circulated in the young states’ papers, the hanging took place “in the presence of a vast concourse of people” whom Sweeting exhorted “to avoid sin, and to take warning by him whose end was a consequent thereof, and strongly recommended obedience to magistrates, a disobedience of whom was a breach of the law of God … then addressed himself to the throne of grace in an admirable well-adapted prayer, which closed with ‘Jesus receive my spirit.'” (Vermont Gazette, September 5, 1791)
* Whiting would say to the very end that the kettle was not stolen.