Posts filed under 'Pardons and Clemencies'

1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized by elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1817: Two-fifths of the condemned in Valenciennes

Add comment July 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.

Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.

The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”

Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.

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1625: Not Helene Gillet, beheading survivor

Add comment May 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1625, Helene Gillet went to the scaffold in Dijon to suffer beheading for infanticide.

But it was the executioner and not Helene who came down from it in pieces.

Helene was the beautiful 21-year-old daughter of a royal chatelain, the sort of well-to-do folks who would own monogrammed blankets that proved quite incriminating when found wrapped around an abandoned dead infant in the woods. Helene would claim that its origin was a family tutor who forced himself upon her, and also insist without further explanation on her innocence of the child’s fate — though the latter little entered the picture since an edict from 1556 made it capital crime to conceal pregnancy and childbirth.

Thanks to her status, she was entitled to the dignity of a beheading, rather than an ignoble dispatch by rope. But all else for Helene Gillet was shame: her father disowned her and forbade any intervention on her behalf; only Helen’s mother accompanied her to Dijon to appeal against the sentence.

It is said that in the course of her appeals to the Parlement of Dijon, the mother attracted the sympathy of the Bernadine abbey there, one of whose inmates ventured to prophesy that “whatever happens, Helene Gillet will not die by the hand of the executioner, but will die a natural and edifying death.”

Parlement begged to differ.

On Monday, May 12th, the young woman was led to the hill of Morimont (present-day Place Emile-Zola) by the executioner of Dijon, Simon Grandjean. Monsieur Bourreau was in an agitated state that day, whether from pity for his victim, or from an ague that had afflicted him, or from whatever other woes haunted his life. When you’re the executioner of Dijon you can’t just call in sick or take a mental health day.

The scaffold on which the whole tragedy was to unfold was a permanent edifice, albeit far less monumental than the likes of Montfaucon. Its routine employment was attested by the permanent wooden palisade and the small stone chapel comprising the arena — features that would factor in the ensuing scene.

Having positioned Gillet on the block, our troubled executioner raised up his ceremonial sword and brought it crashing down … on her left shoulder. The blow toppled the prisoner from the block, but she was quite alive. To cleanly strike through a living neck with a hand-swung blade — to do so under thousands of hostile eyes — was never a certain art; there are many similar misses in the annals. Often, an headsman’s clumsiness in his office would incite the crowd: the legendary English executioner Jack Ketch was nearly lynched for his ten-thumbed performance beheading Lord Monmouth.

The Dijonnaise were no more forgiving of Grandjean. Hoots and missiles began pelting the platform as the pitiable condemned, matted with blood, struggled back to the block — and Grandjean must have felt the rising gorge and sweated hands of the man who knows an occasion is about to unman him.

Grandjean’s wife, who acted his assistant in his duties, vainly strove to rescue her man’s mettle and the situation. One chop would do it: the struggling patient would still, the archer detail would restrain the angry crowd. Madame Grandjean forced Gillet back to the block, thrust the dropped sword back into the executioner’s hands with who knows what exhortation.

What else could he do? Again the high executioner raised the blade and again arced it down on the young woman’s head — and again goggled in dismay. Somehow, the blow had been half-deflected by a knot of Helene Gillet’s hair, and nicked only a small gash in the supplicant’s neck. Now hair is a decided inconvenience for this line of work and it was customary to cut it or tie it up — even the era of the guillotine gives us the infamous pre-execution toilette. Even so, the idea of a strong and vigorous man brandishing a heavy executioner’s sword being so entirely frustrated by a braid puts us in mind of an athlete short-arming a free throw or skying a penalty kick for want of conviction in the motion.

This is, admittedly, a retrospective interpretation, but if Grandjean had any inkling of what was to follow one could forgive him the choke.

Having now seen the vulnerable youth survive two clumsy swipes, the crowd’s fury poured brickbats onto the stage in a flurry sufficient to drive the friars who accompanied the condemned to flee in fear for their own lives. Grandjean followed them, all of them retreating to the momentary safety of the chapel as the attempted execution collapsed into chaos.

The steelier Madame Grandjean tried to salvage matters by completing what her husband could not — and seized the injured Gillet to haul her off the platform to the partial shelter of the stone risers by which they had ascended, like a tiger dragging prey to its lair. No longer bothering with the ceremonial niceties of the office, Madame Grandjean simply began kicking and beating Gillet as she drew out a pair of shears to finish her off in violent intimacy.

But the raging mob by this time had pushed through the guards and overrun the palisades, and fell on the melee in the midst of Madame Grandjean’s fevered slashing. The executioner’s wife was ruthlessly torn to pieces, and the cowering executioner himself soon forced from his refuge to the same fate.

Helene Gillet, who had survived a beheading, was hauled by her saviors bloody and near-senseless to a nearby surgeon, who tended her injuries and confirmed that none of them ought be fatal.

What would happen to her now?

The prerogatives of the state insist against the popular belief in pardoning an execution survivor.

We don’t have good answers for this situation even today; that a person might leave their own execution alive seems inadmissible, even though it does — still — occur.

But Helene Gillet was obviously a sympathetic case, and as a practical matter, the office of Dijon executioner had suddenly become vacant. The city’s worthies petitioned as one for her reprieve.

As it happened, King Louis XIII’s younger sister Henrietta Maria had on the very day preceding the execution been married by proxy to Louis’s ill-fated English counterpart Charles I. This gave the French sovereign good occasion for the very palatable exercise of mercy, “at the recommendation of some of our beloved and respected servants, and because we are well-disposed to be gracious through the happy marriage of the Queen of Great Britain.”

The Parlement of Dijon received the royal pardon on June 2, and formally declared Helene Gillet’s official acquittal.

The fortunate woman, having had a brush with the sublime, is said to have retired herself to a convent and lived out the best part of the 17th century there in prayer.

There’s a 19th century French pamphlet of documents related to this case available from Google books.

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2013: Vahid Zare pardoned while hanging

3 comments May 8th, 2014 Headsman

Last year on this date, an astonishing scene unfolded at a public hanging in Mashhad, near the Iran-Afghanistan border.

Vahid Zare, a robber who murdered a young military conscript pursuing him, was the man due for execution.

Moments after he was dropped and began strangling, the family of his victim pardoned him — their right under Iranian law. Zare was immediately rescued mid-hanging, and his executioner helped him off the gallows for transportation to a local hospital.

The graphic pictures that follow tell an astonishing story.

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1789: Not Mary Wade, 11-year-old thief

Add comment March 16th, 2014 Headsman

Thanks to Aaron Molyneux for the guestpost. It’s just an excerpt of a much more detailed treatment Molyneux first made of this case on PrisonVoices.org. I’ve made a handful of minor edits to compress this excerpt, and added or moved some links. -ed.

On Wednesday the 14th of January 1789 Mary Wade stood in court at the age of just 11 years old and received the verdict that her life was to be cut short. For the robbery of one cotton frock, a linen tippet and a linen cap she was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Judged to have committed an adult’s crime, she would face an adult’s punishment.

Although in modern Britain theft may seem a quite unremarkable crime, in Mary Wade’s age robbery was dealt with by extreme punishment. The court suggested that Mary’s theft was equal to “holding a pistol to the breast of a grown person”. Whether or not Mary Wade was aware of the hard-lined punishments given to those who stole remains unknown but having committed a very similar crime at the age of eight, only to get away with it because of her young age, she did know it was a crime and therefore it would seem that there was an air of desperation about Mary’s actions.

Sentenced to die by hanging Mary was taken away from her mother and marched out of the Old Bailey. For a girl of Mary’s age this situation must’ve been a frightening ordeal. Being sent to Newgate prison was not for the faint hearted. It was a vile place deemed so unhealthy that Physicians often refused to go in. By the time Mary entered, Newgate was London’s main jail and Mary joined many others waiting to be hanged before huge crowds outside the prison doors. Arriving in irons Mary would have been faced with open sewage, disease and lack of water. It would be a shock to the system for anybody never mind an eleven year old girl. If those entering had enough money they would enter the Master’s side or the press yard where they would have beds, heat and have their irons removed. But those who could not afford would be thrown into the Common Felons side. These would go without bedding or proper clothing and be forced to slum in the overcrowded, rat-infested cells. Mary almost certainly would have been with the fellow women convicts in the Common Felons side.

More than likely alone, vulnerable and scared Mary would spent a total of ninety three days waiting to be marched out in front of the baying crowds which gathered outside the prison walls to watch convicts hang for their crimes. Ninety three days in which she would wait for her death.

Then, on the 16th of March 1789, in celebration of King George III‘s recovery from madness, Mary Wade’s death sentence was respited along with all other condemned women. Instead of hanging, she would be transported to New South Wales on the convict ship Lady Juliana.

Read on at Prison Voices for more on Mary Wade’s offense, and for her story as a transported convict — where she became the ancestor of a huge number of latter-day Australians.

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1730: Neither James Prouse nor James Mitchel, much to their surprise

Add comment January 14th, 2014 Benjamin Franklin

January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.

Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.

Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.

Hyperlinks are, as one may surmise, Executed Today‘s own annotations.


We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.

Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.

The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.

I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.

JAMES PROUSE.

(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.

The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.

I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.

JAMES MITCHEL.

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1803: Joseph Samuel survives three hangings

1 comment September 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Joseph Samuel just wouldn’t hang.

Transported to Australia in 1801 for theft, Joseph Samuel was part of a cohort of Sydney Cove convicts who, on the night of August 25-26, burgled a house.

The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.

But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazette fulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)

We’ll pick up the narration of the Sydney Gazette (Oct. 2, 1803):

James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.

Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.

Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.

Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.

While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.

at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.

All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.

Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!

Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!

It didn’t.

In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.

* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.

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1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.

With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.

Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.

Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.

Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.

When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.

Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.

Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”

On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.

When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.

Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.

His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.

The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.

He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.

Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.

Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.

On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.

Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.

This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.

The investigation went nowhere.

On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.

What happened next is unprintable.

Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.

As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.

As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.

At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”

Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.

When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”

Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.

The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.

(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)

At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.

Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”


Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.

The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.

In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.

Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.

Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.

So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.

He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:

Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.

He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.

In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.

His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”

He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.

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1827: Isaac Desha pardoned by Gov. Joseph Desha

7 comments June 18th, 2013 Meaghan

On this day in Kentucky in 1827, a plainly guilty murderer who was on to his third trial received an unconditional pardon. His name was Isaac Desha and his father, Joseph, was the state governor.

The murder was committed in 1824. Isaac Desha had separated from his wife, who was reportedly “terrified” of him, and was staying in Richard Dogget’s roadside tavern/inn on the border of Fleming County. On November 2 of that year, Francis Baker showed up and checked himself into the inn. A newspaperman from Mississippi, he was en route to New Jersey where he planned to get married. He was well-dressed and had a lot of luggage with him.

Baker wanted to visit a local man whom Desha also happened to know, and Desha volunteered to take him there. The two men set off together, Desha riding his bay horse and Baker on a gray mare, carrying two saddlebags.

They never arrived at their mutual acquaintance’s home.

Two hours later, a neighbor named Milton Ball noticed a gray mare, with saddle and bridle but no rider, wandering aimlessly on the highway. He caught it and was trying to find the owner when he encountered another riderless horse. This one he recognized as Desha’s. It had a saddle but no bridle.

Milton Ball got his brother, who took the horse to Desha’s residence. No one was home and he left it there.

As Ball was still trying to identify the gray horse’s owner, he came upon Isaac Desha walking down the road carrying two saddlebags. Desha identified the mare as his own property and took it from Ball, and they parted ways.

Awhile later, Francis Baker’s saddlebags were found empty and abandoned. The man never returned to the inn. The locals put two and two together and looked warily at Desha, but there was no hard evidence of foul play and he was the governor’s son, after all, so they said nothing.

That hard evidence turned up within a week, in the form of Francis Baker’s brutalized corpse — partially stripped, and hidden behind a fallen tree only yards from where Desha had been seen carrying the saddlebags. He’d been beaten with some blunt object and his throat was slit, and he had unusual stab wounds that were “four-square” shaped.

Fragments of a horse bridle and a whip were recovered from the scene; Desha owned a horse whip with a heavy handle that could have inflicted the injuries that killed Baker. Desha also owned a dagger that, it turned out, precisely matched the oddly shaped stab holes in Baker’s shirt.

The circumstantial evidence continued to pile up: the mare Desha had claimed as his own turned out to be Baker’s horse, and he also had Baker’s gold watch and the clothing and money that had been packed in Baker’s saddlebags. Desha claimed he’d randomly encountered two unknown men who’d sold the horse to him, and that he didn’t recognize it as stolen property, even though he’d been riding with Francis Baker only hours beforehand.

As for the watch, money and clothes, Desha didn’t even try to account for those.

He was arrested, and tried for murder in January 1825. The case was sensational and they had to move the trial elsewhere because the court determined Desha couldn’t get a fair trial locally. His father hired the finest defense attorney that there was, but the jury took only an hour to convict and recommended a death sentence.

Desha’s attorneys immediately appealed the verdict and sentence. One of the issues was that the sheriff had stayed with the jury during their deliberations, something Desha’s defense said was improper. The sheriff had presumably watched over the jury because a number of them got anonymous notes threatening to burn them in effigy if they voted to convict.

(Not threats to burn the jurors, mind. Threats to burn their effigies.)

The appeals court judge, one George “Peg Leg” Shannon, agreed with the defense and overturned the verdict. The fact that he was good friends with Desha’s father the governor had nothing to do with it, he said, and the outrage among the citizenry and angry editorials in the newspapers would never make him admit otherwise.

Desha got his second trial in September 1825 and got convicted and sentenced to death again. Once again the case was overturned on appeal, this time because the prosecution had not proved Francis Baker’s murder took place in Fleming County like the indictment said.

The local papers called the trial a “farce” and ranted about corruption within the judiciary. The Winchester Gazette editorialized, “It would seem that justice has either bade adieu to Kentucky, or that her judges are the most corrupt and desperate men living.”

But there was nothing to be done about it: Desha would have to be tried a third time. He was, in February 1826, well over a year after the murder, and the third jury convicted him too.

Desha despaired over his third conviction and attempted suicide in July of that year, slitting his throat in his cell. He very nearly succeeded, and the surgeon who brought him back from the brink had to put in a silver tube to reinforce his severed windpipe. For the rest of his life he could speak only in a whisper. The tube needed to be removed regularly for cleaning, and every time this happened Desha endured a terrible feeling of suffocation.

whereas the whole of the evidence against the said Isaac B. Desha being circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcileable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.

Now, know ye, that in consideration of the premises, and by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution, I have thought proper, and do hereby grant to the said Isaac B. Desha a full and free pardon for the supposed offence, as alleged against him in the bill of indictment …

Given under my hand at Frankfort, on the 18th day of June, A.D. 1827, and in the 36th year of the Commonwealth.

By the Governor.
Jos. DESHA.

Desha’s murder conviction was once more under appeal, but his suicide attempt had left him in such poor health that a sympathetic doctor signed an order saying keeping him in jail was endangering his life. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeal.

In March 1827, his lawyers tried to get the murder case dismissed on procedural grounds. Request denied. In June they filed for dismissal again, because the court had failed to seat a full panel of impartial jurors. (Desha used all his juror challenges to help keep the count down.)

Request denied again, and what’s worse, the court decided Isaac Desha’s health had improved enough that he could withstand the rigors of jail. He was remanded into custody.

Governor Desha still had one last card up his sleeve, and it was a trump. On June 18, the same day Isaac was ordered back behind bars, his father rose in court and issued him an unconditional pardon on the spot.

Joseph Desha committed political suicide when he pardoned his son. Isaac’s crime, and the obvious favors afforded him by the justice system, severely damaged the governor’s reputation.

Contrary to popular belief, Joseph didn’t resign after pardoning his son. He quietly finished out his term, retired to his farm and never entered politics again. He died in 1842.

As for Isaac Desha, there’s a legend that he moved to Honduras or Hawaii and has descendants still living there. In fact, although he did head west after his release from jail, he never made it further than Texas.

Like a lot of pioneers, he surely hoped he could put his former troubles behind him. But Isaac Desha carried trouble with him: in Texas, he allegedly robbed and killed a fellow traveler in a crime remarkably similar to Francis Parker’s murder. He was charged with murder yet again and this time he didn’t have an influential father to protect him.

Desha escaped the death penalty one last time, though, by dying of a fever on August 13, 1828, the day before his murder trial was supposed to start. He was twenty-six.

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

Add comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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