Posts filed under 'Milestones'

1943: Gunnar Eilifsen, good cop

Add comment August 16th, 2017 Headsman

Policeman Gunnar Eilifsen on this date in 1943 achieved the undesirable distinction of becoming the first person executed under the auspices of Norway’s World War II collaborationist Quisling government.

As an officer in Oslo, Eilifsen got himself in hot water with the Reichskommissar Josef Terboven when he supported several constables’ refusal to arrest girls who shirked the national labor conscription.

Terboven’s orders-must-be-followed jag was excessive even by the standards of a fascist puppet state, and a court told him to get lost. So, Terboven “appealed” by keeping Eilifsen in custody until later that day, when he arranged a do-over proceeding with handpicked judges and no defense.

The disobedient cop was shot the next sunrise. Three days later the dubious execution was retroactively legalized by a law subjecting the police to the military code, a measure sometimes sarcastically dubbed the “”Lex Eilifsen”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Norway,Power,Shot,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1966: James French, fried

1 comment August 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*

French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.

It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.

“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.

The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).

* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,USA

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1952: Johann Burianek, East German saboteur

Add comment August 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Johann Burianek became the first person executed by East Germany.

A machinist and a World War II Wehrmacht soldier, Burianek (English Wikipedia entry | German) caught a one-year sentence in the postwar Communist East Germany for having the misbegotten initiative in the dying days of the war to go out of his way to arrest a deserter who was nearly executed as a result.

From about 1950 he became affiliated with the western-back anti-communist resistance network Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) — Strike Force Against Inhumanity. Crossing liberally between East and West Berlin, which easy movement East German authorities were fretting, Burianek had a two-year stint irritating the German Democratic Republic with graffiti, subversive posters, and eventually, sabotage.

He was arrested in March 1952 shortly ahead of what would have been his derringest do, the bombing of a rail bridge; a judge named Hilde Benjamin, who in the course of 1950s show trials made her name synonymous with politically motivated severity,* hammered him with a demonstrative sentence** — the very first judicial execution meted out by the DDR, in fact. It was administered in Dresden by beheading with a fallbeil.

* Benjamin, who died on the eve of the Berlin Wall‘s fall, enjoys a poor reputation in the post-Cold War state with a variety of uncomplimentary sobriquets to prove it — such as the “Red Guillotine” and “Red Freisler“.

** She would also impose the death sentence against a fellow KgU operative, Wolfgang Kaiser, who went under the fallbeil five weeks after Burianek.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Terrorists,Treason

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1880: Three juvenile offenders in Canton, Ohio

1 comment June 25th, 2017 Meaghan

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

At 11:35 a.m. on this day in 1880, three teen boys were publicly hanged in Canton, Ohio. George E. Mann was sixteen, Gustave Adolph Ohr was somewhere between fifteen and seventeen, and John Sammet(t) had just turned eighteen the day before. Between them, they had committed two murders.

Left to right: Mann, Ohr, and Sammett.

George Mann and Gustave Ohr came from similar backgrounds: both lost a parent in early childhood — George’s mother and Gustave’s father — and both didn’t adjust well. By the summer of 1879, both boys had run away from home. They were riding the rails when they met each other and began traveling with an older tramp, John Watmough.

The trio had reached Alliance, Ohio when, on June 27, 1879, Gustave and George decided to rob Watmough as he slept. They beat him on the head with a railroad coupling pin, mortally wounding him, and the boys took his watch, money and clothes and ran away. Watmough was able to crawl to a nearby house and mumble a few words before dying. His killers were arrested within minutes.

George, although he insisted it was Gustave who’d struck the fatal blows, was convicted of first-degree murder on December 6. Gustave was convicted on December 13. On December 31, both were sentenced to death. George went to his grave saying he was innocent, but his partner-in-crime refused to cinch his clemency argument by taking full responsibility.

According to the Stark County Democrat, while awaiting their deaths, George and Gustave were both able to obtain “many luxuries” by selling copies of the gallows ballads they supposedly wrote themselves. (Mann’s | Ohr’s)

John Sammett, like George Mann, lost his mother at a very early age and lived with his father and stepmother at the time of his crime. Like the Bavaria-born Gustave Ohr, he was of German parentage, although John was born in Ohio. He developed a reputation as a petty thief and was arrested several times, but his relatives always bailed him out of trouble.

In August of 1879, John and a sixteen-year-old friend, Christopher Spahler, broke into a saloon. They were arrested, and Spahler agreed to turn state’s evidence and testify against his erstwhile friend. The burglary trial was scheduled for November 26; the day before, John tracked down Spahler and tried to get him to change his mind. Spahler would not relent, and John shot him in the chest.

People heard the shot and came running; Spahler died a short time later without speaking, but both John and the murder weapon were still at the crime scene. He was arrested immediately, and on March 2, 1880 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, in a different hanging circus … (widely reprinted wire story via the Milwaukee Journal of Commerce of (despite the dateline) June 23, 1880.

This Akron Law Review article notes,

The public hanging of Mann and Ohr, along with John Sammett, was the occasion for a community-wide extravaganza. People came to the small town of Canton in eastern Ohio by excursion train from as far away as Chicago and Pittsburgh to witness the event. A circus was part of the extravaganza [literally, Coup‘s circus was in town at the same time -ed.] and the night before the hangings included much music, cannon firing, speech making and similar merriment. The next morning, Mann and the other two teenaged boys were hanged in the city square of Canton before an estimated crowd of 10,000 people!

After the triple hanging, sheriffs deputies placed the three bodies in the jail corridor and permitted the entire crowd to file through and view the bodies. The public viewing lasted almost four hours, with the doors being closed at 3:30 p.m.

This was the first time the state of Ohio had executed minors.

These three young killers were featured in Daniel Right Miller’s 1903 book The Criminal Classes: Causes and Cures, which remarks (speaking of Ohr specifically) “that parental neglect, impure literature, and vicious companions were all responsible for this ruined life and forced death.”

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

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1985: Kent Bowers, the last hanged in Belize

Add comment June 19th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1985, murderer Kent Bowers met his death by hanging at Belize Central Prison in Hattieville. Only seventeen on the date of his crime, he had reached legal age by the time of his death.

On July 4 of the previous year, Bowers had gone to the Sueno Beliceño restaurant in Belize City, where Francis and Dora Codd were having a private party to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Bowers hadn’t been invited to the party, and he was asked to leave. The Codds’ son Robert escorted him to the door, but outside, a struggle ensued and Bowers stabbed Robert in the chest and abdomen. The victim died within minutes and Bowers was arrested.

He pleaded self-defense at trial, but this argument went nowhere. An appeals court noted,

On the evidence of the prosecution witnesses it can hardly be said that the accused in producing a knife and stabbing indiscriminately was acting in self defence. None of the persons around him were armed, two were women and their efforts were directed to separating the appellant and the deceased rather than to attacking the appellant. Indeed it was never suggested to any of the witnesses in cross examination that anyone had struck the appellant or threatened him.

Kent Bowers was convicted on October 23; the death sentence was mandatory. 2,500 people signed a petition for clemency, but it was denied.

Bowers’s crime and execution were fairly forgettable, but for one detail: as of this writing, he remains the last man to have been hanged in Belize.

The death penalty is still on the books, however. Glenford Baptist was the most recent death row prisoner; he was convicted in 2001, and in 2015, his death sentence was commuted to 25 years.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belize,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices

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1852: Nathaniel Bowman, William Ide inspiration

Add comment April 24th, 2017 Headsman

This date’s anecdote, from a public domain local history, concerns the April 24, 1852 hanging of Nathaniel Bowman. Bowman has the minor distinction of being the first person executed in California’s Colusa County.

Bowman would not escape his execution but his attempt to do so summoned the offices of William B. Ide, a pioneer who had led a revolt in Mexico’s Alta California and thereafter headed the very short-lived California Republic — an affair sometimes remembered as the “Bear Flag Revolt” for the sigil still used today by the state.


The present-day California flag.

The service Ide would render his countrymen in this post was among the last of his life: he died of smallpox later in 1852.

The first legal execution in Colusa County occurred in the spring of 1852. Nathaniel Bowman was convicted of murder in the first degree for killing Levi Seigler by beating him over the head with a bottle.*

There was no jail then, and during the trial Bowman was placed under guard at Monroeville. After his conviction he nearly made good his escape. In some manner he eluded the vigilance of his guard and, still shackled, hobbled to the home of Jesse Sheppard, where he begged piteously to have his irons filed off. Sheppard, however, took him back and turned him over to the authorities at Monroeville, where he was executed soon afterwards.

This episode clearly showed the necessity of having some safe place of detention for prisoners.

With his characteristic resourcefulness in emergencies, William B. Ide met this situation also. He obtained some bar iron and bolts from San Francisco and fashioned a cage. This he placed in the shade of a great oak in front of the hotel in Monroeville, which did duty at that time as the county courthouse also. This simple expedient solved the problem until the seat of government was transferred to Colusa in 1854, whereupon Ide’s cage was removed also, to continue duty as a cell in the county jail in Colusa.

* The Sacramento News (April 27, 1852) advises that Bowman “addressed the assembled crowd, from the scaffold, and stated that it was not his intention to kill Seigler, but to beat him badly.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1947: Garlon Mickles, the last hanged in Hawaii

1 comment April 22nd, 2017 Headsman


Seattle Times, April 22, 1947.

On this date in 1947, U.S. Army Private Garlon Mickles was hanged at a place called “execution gulch” in Honolulu’s Schofield Barracks.

Mickles had enlisted three years before, the 16-year-old son of a St. Louis laundress. (“Tell my mother I died like a man,” were his reported words to the chaplain.)

According to Associated Press reports, army engineers frustrated peeping eyes by “put[ting] up a smoke screen to shield the gallows from the view of the curious.”

He was convicted of raping and robbing a female War Department employee on Guam, where he was stationed with the Twentieth Air Force — from which staging-point the unit conducted bombing raids on mainland Japan. (The Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was part of the 20th.)

Mickles appears to be the last person ever executed on the Hawaiian islands, and also an unusual overlook by the Espy File of U.S. executions, from which he’s totally absent.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guam,Hanged,Hawaii,Milestones,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,Theft,U.S. Military,USA

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

Add comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital, which the chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

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1563: Jean de Poltrot, assassin of the Duke of Guise

1 comment March 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.

The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.

During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.

Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.

In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,

Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†

All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.

Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.


Here’s a similar take in color.

Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.

Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the supposed treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends

Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”

It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.

* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.

** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.

† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.

‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999

§ The chronicler Matthew Paris records a thirteenth century would-be regicide condemned “to be torn limb from limb by horses, at Coventry, a terrible example, and lamentable sight
to all who dared to plot such crimes. In the first place, he was dragged asunder, then beheaded, and his body divided into three parts; each part was then dragged through one of the principal cities of England, and was afterwards hung on a gibbet used for robbers.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Assassins,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1788: Thomas Barrett, the first hanged in Australia

Add comment February 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.

More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.

Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.

In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.

In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.

And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.

Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.

This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.

Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:

Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106

But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.

The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.

White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:

Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.

As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.


A small marker at Sydney’s Circular Quay commemorates Barrett’s execution. (cc) image by mazzle278.

Barrett is an important character in the BBC drama Banished.

* The Home Secretary who orchestrated the pivot to Australia was the Viscount Sydney: hence, the Australian city of Sydney.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Theft

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  • Jim morrison: I have written my own novel about the countess…and they weren’t accomplices of the...
  • Bruce Battle: My Mom first told me of the Jeremiah Reeves incident when I was 5 or 6 years old. My family moved to...
  • Bruce Battle: I was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1953. Many of these incidents are still very fresh in my mind....
  • markb: thank you so much for the encouragement, Kevin. i will put up a little sample at some point.
  • TudorCougar: The link in the last graf is dead.