Posts filed under 'Milestones'

1584: Silly Mary and Country Kate

Add comment February 11th, 2017 Headsman

Executioner Franz Schmidt records in his journal for this date in 1584 the hanging of two women — according to Schmidt, the first women hanged in Nuremberg.

February 11th. Maria Kurschnerin of Nuremberg, alias Silly Mary, who had formerly been whipped out of town with rods, and had her ears cropped; also Katherine Schwertzin of Weher, alias Country Kate, who had also formerly been whipped out of the town; both of them thieves and whores, who with thievish youths and fellows climbed and broke into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things; both hanged at Nuremberg. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in Nuremberg, and it had never yet happened.

Thought Schmidt doesn’t say it, both of these girls were very young — according to Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, both would be minors by today’s standards.

This helps account for the huge crowd that turned out to see them executed — many of them no doubt had also been in the huge crowd that had previously seen “Silly Mary” suffer a non-fatal corporal punishment the year before. The executioner Schmidt administered that punishment as well, and likewise noted it in his diary on January 10, 1583.

January 10th. Mary Kurssnerin, a young prostitute, who was a watchman’s [musketeer’s?] daughter, a girl who had thieved considerably and a handsome young creature with whom the young Dietherr had dealings; Elizabeth Gutlerin, a bath attendant; Katherine Aynerin, alias die Gescheydin, a blacksmith’s wife and a handsome creature; all three children of citizens, and prostitutes, were here pilloried and afterwards flogged out of the town. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this that several people were crushed to death under the Frauenthor. Subsequently Mary’s ears were cut off, and she was hanged.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1940: Peter Barnes and James McCormack, the last IRA men hanged

Add comment February 7th, 2017 Headsman

“The two that swung in Birmingham, with ordered step
From off the gallows floor.”

-Brendan Behan

On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British

They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.

Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**

The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.

Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.

But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.

Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:

  • Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
  • McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
  • Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger

Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.

McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”

Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”

The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.

Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.

* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.

** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists

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1717: Anna Maria Wagemann, the last witch burned at Fürfeld

Add comment February 5th, 2017 Headsman

Three hundred years ago today, Anna Maria Wagemann suffered the last witch execution at Fürfeld.

Conveniently available information on this case appears to derive mostly from a single German-language local history volume which is rather extensively summarized in her German Wikipedia entry.

Despite the late date — the entire cosmology of witchery was coming apart by the 18th century — she fit the classical demographic profile of a witch hunt victim. Wagemann was an aged — 66 or 67 at the time of her trial, she thought — and penniless woman who knew her way around medicinal herbs and had a pre-existing reputation for witchcraft.

When the burning times were truly aflame, marginal people like this could easily be ignited by the accusations a torturer wrung from the last luckless soul to be named to the Black Sabbath. By 1716, when Wagemann went on trial, the case strangely conjoined an ancient superstition to a ponderous Enlightenment legal process, with an 879-page codex of the interrogations with vague witness accusations endorsed by jurists at the University of Tübingen.*

There weren’t any raging famines or plagues afoot that demanded supernatural attribution. It seems in this case that before the neighbors could accuse her of drying up their cows and such, Anna Maria Wagemann was targeted thanks to the oldest enmity in the book: family politics. A daughter-in-law of our principal was either quite convinced she had married into sorcery or else quite weary of the dynamic at family meals, and it was her denunciations (supported by her 9- and 12-year-old daughters) that brought Wagemann to book. It’s difficult to piece together the chain of causation; this woman, Anna Margarethe Wagemann, was herself suspected of witchcraft and jailed for many weeks,** so her charge too might have been issued under duress. In the end, it was only Anna Maria who was tried, and Anna Margarethe gave evidence against her — although Anna Margarethe was also punished by being made to witness the execution with her young daughters, and then being expelled from Fürfeld.

* We’ve seen this university in our pages before, involved in the case against Johannes Kepler’s mother.

** Years later, she would appeal for compensation for her wrongful imprisonment. (It’s not known whether the appeal succeeded.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1735: Alice Riley, Savannah ghost

Add comment January 19th, 2017 Headsman

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.

Illustration from the vignette in Historic Haunts of Savannah

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.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Georgia,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China

3 comments January 15th, 2017 Headsman

January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.

The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.

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.

These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,

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.

* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Milestones,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1830: Agnus Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

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.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

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.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices

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1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1916: Eric Poole, the first British officer shot at dawn during World War I

Add comment December 10th, 2016 Headsman

A century ago today in the Great War, Second Lieutenant Eric Poole laid down his life at the city hall of a Belgian border town.

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1740: Edward Shuel, for a Catholic-Protestant marriage

1 comment November 29th, 2016 Headsman

For today’s post, we’re revisiting one of our favorite troves, James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland — for the remarkable story of the minister executed for secretly marrying a Catholic to a Protestant. (We don’t usually think of tragic romance as being tragic for the officiant.)

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.

Good Christians,

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.

Edward Shuel.

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.

DUBLIN, Printed by Edward Jones in Dirty-lane.

Part of the Themed Set: Sexual Deviance.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex

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