The first judicial execution of a white man* in the history of the Utah Territory took place on this date in 1859.
One Thomas Ferguson earned the distinction by getting roaring drunk and shooting dead the shopkeeper who employed and boarded him. Allegedly, Alexander Carpenter’s provocation had been to accuse Ferguson of being party to the unknown burglars who had lately raided his Salt Lake City shop, which obviously got way under Ferguson’s skin.
“Crime has run riot in this city since the assassination of McNeill and Sergeant Pike” a hostile, non-Mormon correspondent wrote to the San Francisco Bulletin (letter dated Oct. 5, 1859, and published Oct. 27).
Till lately, no one has been arrested. Ferguson, a “Gentile,” murdered Carpenter, a Mormon, and for such an outrage “this people” will permit the sentence of death to be carried into effect; but the murderers of McNeill, of Pike, of Drown, of Arnold — the first two “Gentiles,” the last “apostates” — run at large to hold the community in terror and carry out other sentences.* An apostate committed suicide a few nights since by shooting himself twice in the back of the head!
Carpenter murdered his partner named Turner near Fort Laramie, Nebraska, brought their goods to this city, where, he said, (and convinced his associates,) he was tried and acquitted. Tried and acquitted in Utah for murder in Nebraska!
Both men were New Yorkers — and per a less strident observer writing to the New York Herald (datelined Oct. 7; published Nov. 7) neither of the two was Mormon. They had been allured to the West by the usual siren songs: wealth, fortune, fame. As young men do, these may have pictured themselves forever getting the drop on their enemies and never the other way around … and always with a dashing jailbreak at the ready if it came to that.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, he wasn’t the only Old West stock character in this tableau; a hanging-judge of dubious character named Charles Sinclair officiated the trial, so deep into his cups that he initially set Ferguson’s execution date for a Sunday. (It was changed to a Friday.) Ferguson himself gave the judge a right scorching from his scaffold rostrum on his way off this mortal coil:
I was tried by the statutes of Utah Territory, which give a man the privilege of being shot, beheaded or hanged. But was it given to me? No, it was not. All Judge Sinclair wanted was to sentence some one to be hanged, then he was willing to leave the Territory; and he had too much whiskey in his head to know the day he sentenced me to be executed on, and would not have known, if it had not been for the people of Utah laughing at him … A nice Judge to send to any country! (Source)
* The Espy file credits earlier executions of Native Americans, two Goshutes named Longhair and Antelope who hanged for slaying two whites during settler bush wars. (I would not venture to assert the judicial propriety, even by antebellum standards, of these proceedings.) And of course, Ferguson’s distinction excludes extrajudicial killings like the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
** The unpunished killings the correspondent names in this piece took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1857-1858 war between Mormon settlers in Utah and the federal government asserting its jurisdiction — a period when Brigham Young’s martial law had just been rescinded. Utah Gentiles inclined to read these incidents as emblematic of a lawless atmosphere in which reluctance to prosecute gave Mormons virtual impunity in their conduct towards the rest of the population.
Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.
Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.
And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.
Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!
Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.
When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.
“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”
As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.
And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*
It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.
Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”
Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?
Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.
“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”
Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.
And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.
Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.
So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.
Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”
It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.
* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.
On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.
De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.
One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.
However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*
No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.
O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.
Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.
Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …
If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.
For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.
Barbara Zdunk was executed on this date in 1811 in the Prussian city Rößel (today the Polish city Reszel).
Zdunk is the chronologically latest candidate for the elusive distinction of “the last witch execution in Europe”. Devastating fires that hit Reszel in 1806 and 1807 activated her neighbors’ suspicions of Zdunk witchery; however, enlightened Prussia had dispensed with its witch-burning laws long before the books in the 19th century so Zdunk must have been formally prosecuted simply as an arsonist — whatever the actuating superstitions behind that charge. The idea was that she caused the conflagration by torching the house of her faithless fiance.
Reszel Castle, the 14th century citadel whose dungeon entombed Ms. Zdunk for a couple of years prior to her execution, is today an atmospheric hotel, allegedly haunted by spirit of its famous former inhabitant.
On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.
An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!
After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.
Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.
The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …
Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.
Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.
In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.
Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.
On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.
The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.
James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,
my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)
Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.
The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.
Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.
As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.
This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.
On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.
She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.
Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.
However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.
Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.
Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.
The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.
However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.
Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.
When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”
By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.
The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.
-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844
But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.
David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)
The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.
Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*
The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.
I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:
Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!
And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.
This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.
The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.
“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.
The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.
I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**
Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.
It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.
The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.
* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.
** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)
The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.
Implemented early in Western Australia’s convict era as the influx of criminals made existing settlers jumpy, this law made a wide variety of violent but non-fatal crimes potentially subject to the death penalty when committed by an escaped fugitive.
Robert Thomas Palin was a newcomer to Australia, having debarked from a convict ship only in January 1860. Despite his burglary conviction back in the mother country, he was an exemplary prisoner and earned his ticket of leave (a sort of limited furlough). He even kept a house in Fremantle and took lodgers.
In May 1861, he threw every away every bit of good will and more by burgling another Fremantle home. A Mrs. Susan Harding awoke in the moonlight to find this invader looming over her bed — and he greeted her in that classic of convict argot, “Your money or your life.”
Mrs. Harding didn’t have any — in the words of her testimony on July 3:**
He repeatedly told me to “hush.” He took hold of me by the arm and pulled my hair about, and then pulled the bed clothes down, and felt about the bed. I was afraid he was about to commit some assault — he touched my night dress, not to move it, and then I got so dreadfully alarmed, that I jumped out of bed on the opposite side of the bed. I went to my looking-glass drawer, and took out a watch and chain, which I handed him, and prayed him to leave me.
Palin did so.
Although terrifying for Susan Harding, the encounter did not result in any injury; as Palin’s boot-prints were easily followed back to his own house, even her watch and chain were recovered. To send this offender to the gallows seemed like a punishment out of the wrong century, as Perth’s Inquirer and Commercial Newseditorialized (June 10):
Burglary attended with violence, however brutal that violence might be, so long as it did not result fatally, is not punished with death in the United Kingdom.
… What was the violence on this occasion? Catching hold of the arm of the principal witness; and it does not appear from the evidence that even the grasp was violent, nor was it necessary to be so according to the acceptation of the meaning of the word laid down for us. It was propounded by the Chief Justice that, strictly speaking, merely laying a hand upon a person, under such circumstances, constituted violence. Is this truly the spirit of the law? …
Palin might have taken everything in that house, yet he would not have been hung. He might have threatened with the presumed pistol, have gesticulated, have stormed and terrified the occupant of the chamber almost to the verge of insanity, and yet he would not have been hung, but he touched her arm, and death is the penalty. There is something horrible in this. But there is something more fearful still when we further look into the matter and find that had he committed any enormity, even to the shedding of blood, he could not have had awarded to him a more extreme measure of punishment. …
[It is our] fervent hope that never again may the pages of our Colonial History be inscribed with so terrible a record; that never again will it be our province to allude to an event of so dreadful a character as that which has lately passed away.
The fervent hope was realized. In the only other case where Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 was used to secure a death penalty for an ordinarily non-capital crime, the sentence was commuted.
* As of this writing, Wikipedia avers July 6. References from 1861 newspapers make it clear that this is erroneous. (example, another).
** Yes, that’s six days before the execution occurred.
On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.
Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1725, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**
Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†
Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.
“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.
A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.
Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the going practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡
* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our going practice has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)
England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.
I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.
** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.
† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like theseblokes.
‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.