Posts filed under 'Notable Sleuthing'

1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

4 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Theft

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1662: John Barkstead, Miles Corbet, and John Okey, renditioned regicides

2 comments April 19th, 2012 Headsman

Happy 350th death day to three English regicides renditioned from Holland.

John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey were all among the 59 judges who signed the death-warrant of King Charles I.

Like everyone else on that parchment, they were in a world of hurt when Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne. And like a great many of those who figured to reap the whirlwind, they sensibly fled the realm.

Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.

Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.

It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.

The author of it all was the original Downing: Sir George Downing, the namesake of London’s Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister resides.

This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)

An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”

Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.

Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.

Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.

Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.

Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.

Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements

in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.

Downing was exultant.

“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.

Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.

Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news

that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains. (Pepys’s March 12 and March 17 entries for this year)


See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)

* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Netherlands,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1916: Joseph Hani, abandoned

Add comment April 5th, 2012 Headsman

“Mr Joseph Hani was hanged for treason in the Burj at 5 a.m. At 8 a.m. 40 families deported.

-Diary of Mrs. Harry Dorman, April 5, 1916*

The unfortunate Joseph Hani — Yusuf al-Hani — was among the worthies of Beirut’s Maronite Christian community to petition the French consulate for western aid in detaching Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire.

With the development of World War I, the French ambassador Francois Georges-Picot abandoned the embassy … without removing or destroying this sort of incriminating correspondence. As a result, the Turks ransacked the embassy and identified several dozen of reproachable loyalty to the Porte to put to death.

May 6 — Martyrs’ Day — honors these victims, but Hani was among the very first of them.

While most of the other Maronite signers were able to fly, Hani stuck around to face the music. A British agent was able to contact the implicated characters in Aley Prison, and received the plaintive answer,

‘Where are the English? Where are the French? Why are we left like this?’

* I believe an ancestor of the current president of the American University of Beirut, Peter Dorman. The source of the diary citation is Nicholas Z. Ajay Jr.’s “Political Intrigue and Suppression in Lebanon during World War I” in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Apr., 1974.

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1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted

4 comments February 16th, 2012 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Thomas Jennings was ushered the scaffold … while Thomas Jennings’s fingerprints ushered in a new age of policework (pdf).

Hegemonic authority had been on a long march towards a forensic regime that could affix an oft-ephemeral identity to the profoundly corporeal body.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, investigative techniques and jurisprudence marched double time to keep pace with new techniques — from photography to the unwieldy system of Bertillonage.

A variety of American institutions — the U.S. Army, a number of prison systems — had begun systematically cataloging their respective inmates’ fingerprints in the preceding years, but it was in the Jennings case that the system really earned its whorls. It was the first U.S. murder case pinned on fingerprint evidence.

In September 1910, a Chicago homeowner in the present-day Beverly neighborhood surprised an intruder, and was shot dead. (pdf) In the course of the fight or the flight, the prowler splooshed his left hand into some wet paint on a railing.

Thomas Jennings, a paroled burglar, was arrested near the scene, and his fingerprints shown to match those left in the grieving Hiller household. A prosecution expert even gave a courtroom demonstration of dusting for prints.

This was as novel to judges as to jurymen, and given the dearth of other positive evidence against Jennings, the Illinois Supreme Court was called upon to deliberate upon the humble dactylogram. In the summer of 20111911, it stopped Jennings’ hanging just hours before it was to take place.

But its final word in December 20111911 only fitted the homebreaker’s noose.

We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on this subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it …

Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible, with other proof, as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to the identity of persons based on voice, the appearance or age are admissible, Why does not this record justify the admission of this fingerprint testimony under common law rules of evidence.

Courtrooms all around the world soon agreed, and within a generation the awesome investigative power of the fingerprint had fugitives going so far as to slice or burn off those incriminating little pads of flesh — the crime scene gold standard until the advent of DNA testing.

Jennings was hanged this date in a state-record five-man batch (the others, Ewald and Frank Shiblawski, Philip Sommerling, and Thomas Schultz, had all committed an unrelated murder together).

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2002: Daniel Pearl

1 comment February 1st, 2012 Headsman

“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”

-9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, in a claim made after torture in Guantanamo but nonetheless considered accurate according to a detailed 2011 report on Pearl’s death*

Warning: Although the filming was botched, this execution video still has plenty of gore and a severed head.

On this date in 2002, American hostage Daniel Pearl was executed by his captors in Karachi, Pakistan.

The 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter had been abducted January 23 by Islamic radicals while pursuing an interview with a (mistakenly) suspected handler of shoe bomber Richard Reid. Instead of being taken to the interview, Pearl was disappeared and held hostage for a variety of implausible demands targeting the United States’ relationship with Pakistan’s military government.

The reporter’s death this day was not confirmed until late February, when his killers released a video on the Internet interspersing images of American and Israeli violence with footage of Pearl speaking — and then, horrifically, of Pearl being beheaded with a knife.** It was the first of several hostagebeheading videos various militants would release in the next few years.

Pearl’s captors drew a direct line from his Jewishness to his murder in the statements they forced him to make:

My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California USA … I come from, uh, on my father’s side the family is Zionist … My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish … My family follows Judaism. We’ve made numerous family visits to Israel … Back in the town of B’nei Braq there is a street named after my great grandfather Chayim Pearl who is one of the founders of the town.

It was the more startling because Pearl himself was a very secular Jew. Pearl did not set out to be a martyr for his cultural or religious heritage: that identity as the identity was thrust upon him.

And it’s been suggested that it was thrust upon Pearl’s captors as well, whose object in kidnapping an American reporter might have been a much more parochial kidnapping commonplace — publicity, cash — but who became politically boxed in when their hostage was publicized by the media as a “Jewish-American reporter”. One of the emails the captors had pre-drafted actually announced Pearl’s release. It was edited after the kidnapping … to announce Pearl’s execution within 24 hours, as a Mossad agent. Al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to have been summoned from outside the abductors’ circle as a ringer with the captors unsure of how to dispose of their prey.

As an investigative reporter, Pearl’s own work had in some notable instances countered the preferred narratives of American hegemony. For instance, his reporting rubbished American charges that the Khartoum pharmaceutical factory Bill Clinton ordered bombed in 1998 was actually a chemical weapons plant. His work in Kosovo led him to contradict the most bellicose “genocide” allegations from that region’s dirty ethnic war.

He was a star reporter in the prime of his life, a man who poured out words that defined a career and a public persona. From February 1, 2002, suddenly and without justice, that text was torn from his hands. In its place, during the charged months after September 11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, came a silent Rorschach blot.

Pearl, the Jewish martyr. Pearl, the victim of blowback. Pearl, the journalistic icon. Pearl, the naive liberal in the heart of darkness. Pearl, the mandate for waterboarding and Iraq.

Pearl, the object lesson.

Pearl, the axe for others’ grinding.

Omar Sheikh, a Pakistani militant reportedly linked to Britain’s MI6 and the author of the kidnapping, was arrested within days of Pearl’s murder. He remains imprisoned under sentence of death in Pakistan for the crime.

* Mohammed also claimed that he wanted to kill Pearl personally to “make sure I got the death penalty” if he were eventually arrested.

** Among the many bone-chilling details to emerge from the subsequent investigation, it became clear that the actual murder was not shown — only some quick flashes of re-enacted throat-cutting — because the cameraman missed the shot of the kill.

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1999: Recak Massacre

2 comments January 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1999, Serbian militants killed approximately 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians near the village of Reçak in Kosovo. The victims allegedly included a twelve-year-old boy and at least one woman.

Depending on who you listened to, it was either a massacre against innocent civilians, or a military action against guerillas.

The New Kosova Report, adopting the former point of view, summarizes in a 2008 article:

In the early morning of 15 January, 1999, forces from Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) moved into the village with tanks and began to shoot at houses sheltering civilians. After ransacking all the houses, they gathered 28 Albanian men and boys and ordered them to head towards a hill outside the village for questioning. There they were sprayed with machine guns and 23 of them died. Only five survived by pretending they were dead. Another 22 people were shot and/or decapitated at different places in the village. Some in a ravine behind the village, while others in front of their houses.

A local villager named Shefqet Avida gave photographer and BBC Radio reporter Melanie Friend an account which was later quoted in Friend’s book No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo.

Policemen — Serbs — were hiding here, expecting them. I heard the Serbs saying, “Anyone under fifteen years old, don’t touch, but upwards of sixteen or seventeen years old, just kill them …” The people, when they were captured here, were made to stay in line, and every one of them was shot, and after that with a … very nice knife … they took eyes from the faces and hearts from the chest, and the Serbs later said, “That’s not true, we didn’t do that,” the mice, they’d eaten them. […]

Serbian police were shooting until four or five in the afternoon. When the observers arrived in the morning, we went with them to see the place where the people were murdered. Three of us stayed here all night to guard the bodies. […] Thirteen members of my family were killed there.

The Serbs denied having murdered civilians and claimed all those killed were all Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, shot during a skirmish with Serbian forces. To this day, many maintain the entire thing was staged, a hoax set up by the KLA in order to get support for their side.

Trying to sort the matter out, the European Union dispatched forensic experts to the scene from Finland. Helena Ranta, one of the experts, concluded that “There were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians.” When her opinion was broadcast in a press release, many mistook it for being the opinion of the entire group of scientists.

The Finns’ official report, however, has never been released. Dr. Ranta, a forensic dentist, later accused officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of pressuring her to go against the Serbs.

Yugoslav and Belarusian scientists also examined the bodies and said they believed all the dead were KLA combatants. In response, critics blasted them for using allegedly out-of-date and unscientific testing methods.

News of the killings made headlines all over the world and incited NATO to finally get involved in the war. A couple of years later, Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Miloševic was brought up on war crimes charges; ordering the Reçak killings was one of them. It was later removed from the indictment for lack of evidence, however. (Miloševic died before his trial was concluded.)

In 2001, a Kosovo Serb police officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the killings. Outside observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, criticized the trial proceedings, accusing the Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias and politically motivated decision-making. As of this writing, no one else has been called to account for what happened in Reçak.

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1869: Nicholas Melady, the last public hanging in Canada

2 comments December 7th, 2011 John Melady

Thanks to John Melady, author of Double Trap, for the guest post about his kinsman. -ed.

I was standing with my father, looking at the ruins of an old house. I thought what remained of the brickwork was interesting, until Dad said, rather offhandedly: “And this is where the murder happened.” I was rather shocked, and asked what he meant.

His answer led me to write Double Trap, the story of the last public hanging in Canada.

Briefly, the tale goes something like this.

A man named Nicholas Melady Senior, my great-grandfather’s half brother, amassed substantial landholdings in Huron County, Ontario Canada, prior to 1868. In the years just before that, he played various family members off against each other, and depending on his whim, one or other of them would be promised his inheritance. His son Nicholas Junior was used worst of all. He worked without pay for his father, was promised all or at least some of the lands, but then was told he would get nothing — several times.

One night, Nicholas Senior, who was commonly called The Old Man, was in bed with his new wife, when Nicholas Junior and two of his friends, all of whom were drunk, broke into the Old Man’s house. A terrible fight ensued, and it included a hand gun and an axe, but at the end of the thing, the Old Man and his bride were dead.

After some very shoddy detective work, Nicholas Junior and his two friends were rounded up and lodged in a basement cell of an old house in nearby Seaforth, Ontario. (The local magistrate owned the place.) Part of that cell still exists, including the barred window the culprits would have looked through — at the rest of the cellar. It is rather creepy to visit, and while I researched Double Trap, I did not want to be there for long, and never at night.

In due course, the three desperadoes were sent to an even more chilling old jail in Goderich, Ontario. (It is now a Canadian historic site, and is visited by throngs of people every year.) There, Nicholas Junior’s friends ultimately turned against him.

However, before that happened, local detectives used a unique stratagem to gain evidence against Nicholas. I could never be sure where they got the idea. They hired a beautiful young woman who was born in Michigan, (who was likely a prostitute) and talked her into spending time in a cell in the jail. She was paid to gain the trust of Nicholas, and hopefully a confession.

In that sense, she was the first part of the “double trap,” in the book’s title.

The woman was given the name “Jenny,” and in time, by dropping notes where he would find them, and ultimately putting herself in a position where she could whisper to him through his cell window, (she positioned herself in the women’s exercise yard; he was inside his cell), she caused him to fall in love with her. All of her notes, and his as well, were used in the trial that followed. The two never actually touched each other.

When she walked into the courtroom during the trial and took the stand to describe her job and show the letters Nicholas had written, he was utterly speechless with shock. He had completely trusted her, and to him, her betrayal was total.

The execution of Nicholas Melady was a macabre affair, as were events leading up to it. His death cell was positioned quite close to where he was hanged. He could hear workers building his scaffold, and while I cannot prove it, I believe he would have been able to witness the construction of the thing. The death cell still exists, and in researching this book, I visited it several times. Now that is creepy.

So is the ground where he took his final few steps, out to the scaffold. It was built on top of the prison wall. He went up the steps on the inside, then lurched to his death, down the outside of the wall — where all the spectators waited to see the spectacle. His fall, through the trapdoor in the gallows floor was the second trap of the book’s title.

The execution was the last public one in Canada. Three weeks later the government of the country abolished public executions because they were regarded as too barbaric. There was controversy however, around the one for Nicholas. Many people felt he had been betrayed, by his accomplices, and by “Jenny,” and so lots of talk in the community made the public officials fear that there would be demonstrations the day of the death.

For that reason, they moved the execution time up by about three hours. “Only” about 300 people witnessed it. Several thousand came to see the spectacle later in the day, but by the time they reached the site, the show was over. His body was cut down, and for reasons I could never fathom, was actually waked for two days in the same house where the killings took place. Lots of the curious came to see the corpse of the killer, laid out for display.

The day after the execution, the New York Times was the first newspaper on the street with the story. I could find no trace of “Jenny,” or what became of her after her jailhouse job. Her testimony in court was never really challenged.

I was able to position myself in the cell where Nicholas was when he whispered to “Jenny.” I then went into the women’s exercise yard and by leaning against the jail wall easily understood how the conversations between the two transpired.

The book is Double Trap, by John Melady. Published by Dundurn, and available in the United States at Dundurn Publishing, 2250 Military Road, Tonawanda, New York 14150. In Canada, the pub address is: Dundurn Publishing, 3 Church Street, Suite 500, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1M2 In Britain, the address is: Gazelle Book Services Limited, White Cross Mills, High Town, Lancaster, England LA1 4XS.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex

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1634: Urbain Grandier, for the Loudon possessions

3 comments August 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1634, a Paris tribunal “declare[d] the said Urbain Grandier duly guilty of the crime of sorcery, evil spells, and the possession visited upon some Ursuline nuns of this town of Loudon and of other laywomen mentioned at the trial, together with other crimes resulting from the above. For redress of these, he has been condemned … to be taken to the Place of Saine-Croix of this said town, to be tied to a post on a pile of faggots that is to be built in the said Place. There his body is to be burned alive … and his ashes are to be scattered to the winds.”

The sentence was immediately enforced.

These Loudon possessions were a disgraceful carnival of simulated enspellment by the local Ursuline nuns engineered to destroy Grandier, a parish priest with a knack for acquiring enemies.

Alexandre Dumas, pere would write about Grandier in his Crimes Célèbres, and later in a stand-alone play. In Dumas’s rendering, Grandier arrived in Loudon as a handsome outsider, eloquent in the pulpit and doubly so in pursuit of a pretty girl,* as inexorable as Shylock in his victorious lawsuits against the local grandees.

Most recklessly of all, he made a foe of Cardinal Richelieu — snubbing him, opposing him politically, and (so it was alleged) authoring a scathing and anonymous lampoon of the Grey Eminence.

When Richelieu’s deputy came to town, the locals got the Ursuline nuns into their fits and got Grandier fast-tracked for hell.

The nuns put on a circus of frothing, profane, hip-thrusting demoniac possession accusing Grandier of bewitchment as they melodramatically underwent exorcism. (Fabulously attended, these public displays of possession and exorcism went on for several years after Grandier’s death as a perverse tourist attraction.)

Richelieu’s guy arranged to try Grandier in his own court (no appeal possible) and threatened to arrest for treason anyone who testified in his defense. In case that were insufficient advantage, a contract with Lucifer — a literal, signed document — was produced for the magistrates’ edification.


In fairness, this “contract” must have been a hell of a lot of fun to forge.

Heck, even nuns who tried to recant were turned away. Must be back under Lucifer’s influence!

Before proceeding to the stake, Grandier was subjected to one last “extraordinary” torture. His holy persecutors, “lest the Devils should have the power to resist the blows of a profane man, such as the hangman was, they themselves took the hammers and tortured the unhappy man” until the bone marrow leaked from his legs. Satan’s subcontractor suffered the blows without confessing or naming an accomplice.

In 1952, Aldous Huxley molded the horrible Grandier story into a non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun. Huxley’s take helped to popularize the tale — one that polemicists in the 17th century also recognized as an injustice — for the modern era of flesh minced by ideological madness.

From beginning to end, the trial proved a farce in which the condemnation of the accused was a foregone conclusion. By means of a series of trumped-up charges reinforced by an official philosophy and falsified theological dogmas, the resources of the state were mobilized to crush the offending individual. Huxley is not slow to point to the modern counterpart of such proceedings, notably in Fascist or Communist countries.

-Book review by S. van Dantzich, The Australian Quarterly, June 1954

Evidently, it struck a chord.

A 1971 cinematic adaptation of this book, The Devils, a captivating and sacrilegious tapestry of violent, sexual, and religious iconography, won critical praise and censor board bans, as well as an “X” rating in the United States. It’s hard to find, but worth the trouble.

Huxley’s book also formed the basis for an operatic interpretation, Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun)

* As we’ve seen, French priests making sexy time stood in danger from their game-less counterparts.

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1648: Margaret Jones, the first witch executed in Boston

Add comment June 15th, 2011 Headsman

We expediently cadge today’s entry from the public-domain Memorial History of Boston, in a section penned by Chicago public librarian William F. Poole.

(The illustrations, their captions, and the footnotes are interpositions from ExecutedToday.com.)


In Boston, the earliest execution for witchcraft was that of Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, on June 15, 1648.* There seems to be no evidence that any earlier case of witchcraft was under investigation in the colony.

Her husband, Thomas Jones, was arrested at the same time on the same charge, but he was not convicted. The little we know of Margaret Jones we find in Governor Winthrop’s Journal. She was evidently a strong-minded woman, and a skilful practitioner of medicine … There was no charge that she had bewitched any one, and the usual phenomena of spectres, fits, spasms, etc. were wanting. The main evidence on which she was convicted was her imps, which were detected by “watching” her …

The Court Records and the Deputies’ Records … for May 18, give an order concerning Margaret Jones and her husband, without the mention of their names, as follows: —

This court, desirous that the same course which hath been taken in England for the discovery of witches, by watching [them a certain time] may also be taken here with the witch now in question: [It is ordered that the best and surest way may forthwith be put in practice, to begin tis night, if it may be, being the 18th of the 3d month] that a strict watch be set about her every night, and that her husband be confined to a private room and watched also” (Deputies’ Records, with the words in brackets inserted from the Court records).

The theory of the English law books was that every witch had familiars or imps, which were sent out by the witch to work deeds of darkness, and that they returned to the witch once a day, at least, for sustenance, and usually in the night. By watching the witch these imps might be detected, and thus furnish certain proof of guilt in the accused.


1647 frontispiece of English witch hunter Matthew Hopkins‘s tract The Discovery of Witches shows witches and their various named familiars.

Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, was a common book in the colonies, and was quoted in the witch trials at Salem. In the chapter on “Witchcraft” it has the following directions: —

Now against these witches, being the most cruel, revengeful, and bloody of all the rest, the justices of the Peace may not always expect direct evidence, seeing all their works are the works of darkness, and no witnesses present with them to accuse them; and, therefore, for the better discovery, I thought good here to insert certain observations, partly out of the ‘Book of Discovery of the Witches that were arraigned at Lancaster, Anno 1612, before Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, Judges of Assize there,’ and partly out of Mr. [Richard] Bernard’s ‘Guide to Grand Jurymen.’

These witches have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit, which appeareth to them, sometimes in one shape and sometimes in another; as in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, hare, rat, toad etc.


A 1579 English image of a witch feeding her familiars. (But not from secret teats.)

And to these their spirits they give names, and they meet together to christen them (as they speak). Their said familiar hath some big or little teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he sucketh them. And besides their sucking the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blue or red spot, like a flea-biting, sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow (all which for a time may be covered, yea, taken away, but will come out again in their old form). And these Devil’s marks be insensible, and being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search. These first two are main points to discover and convict those witches; for they fully prove that those witches have a familiar, and made a league with the Devil. So, likewise, if the suspected be proved to have been heard to call upon their spirits, or to talk to them, or of them, or have offered them to others. So if they have been seen with their spirit, or to feed something secretly; these are proofs that they have a familiar. They have often pictures [images] of clay or wax, like a man, etc., made of such as they would bewitch, found in their house, or which they may roast or bury in the earth, that as the picture consumes, so may the parties bewitched consume (Edition of 1727, p. 514.)

Mr. John Gaule, in his Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft, 1646, p. 77, condemning the barbarous methods of discovering witches, thus describes the mode of “watching a witch” in use at the time: —

Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some uneasy posture, to which if she submits not, she is bound with cords. She is there watched, and kept without meat or sleep for the space of four-and-twenty hours. — for they say within that time they shall see her imp come and suck. A little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at.

Margaret Jones was “searched” and “watched;” the fatal witch-marks were discovered, and her imp was seen in “the clear day-light,” as appears in the record of the case which Governor Winthrop made in his Journal at the time: —

[June 15, 1648].** At this court, one Margaret Jones, of Chalrestown, was indicted and found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged for it. The evidence against her was —

  1. That she was found to have such a malignant touch, as many persons, men, women, and children,, whom she stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure, or etc. [sic], were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.
  2. She practising physic, and her medicines being such things as, by her own confession, were harmless, — as anise-seed, liquors, etc., — yet had extraordinary violent effects.
  3. She would use to tell such as would not make use of her physic, that they would never be healed; and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond he apprehension of all physicians and surgeons.
  4. Some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she would tell of, as secret speeches, etc., which she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of.
  5. She had, upon search, an apparent teat … as fresh as if it had been newly sucked; and after it had been scanned, upon a forced search, that was withered, and another began on the opposite side.
  6. In the prison, in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms, she sitting on the floor, and her clothes up, etc., a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished. the like child was seen in two other places to which she had relation; and one maid that saw it, fell sick upon it, and was cured by the said Margaret who used means to be employed to that end. Her behavior at her trial was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the jury and witnesses, etc., and in the like distemper she died. The same day and hour she was executed, there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc. (ii. 397, ed. of 1853).

Mr. John Hale,† in his Modest Inquiry, p. 17, mentions the case, but none of the incidents recorded by Winthrop. He was born in Charlestown, was twelve years old at the time, and with some neighbors visited the condemned woman in prison the day she was executed. He says: —

… She was suspected, partly because that, after some angry words passing between her and her neighbors, some msichief befell such neighbors in their creatures [cattle] or the like; partly because some things supposed to be bewitched, or have a charm upon them, being burned, she came to the fire and seemed concerned.

The day of her execution I went, in company of some neighbors, who took great pains to bring her to confession and repentance; but she constantly professed herself innocent of that crime. Then one prayed her to consider if God did not bring this punishment upon her for some other crime; and asked if she had not been guilty of stealing many years ago. She answered, she had stolen something; but it was long since, and she had repented of it, and there was grace enough in Christ to pardno that long ago; but as for witchcraft she was wholly free from it, — and so she said unto her death.

There is no other contemporary mention of the case. It is a horrible record; and if downright, stolid superstition and inhumanity was not surpassed, if, indeed, it was equalled, at Salem forty-four years later. That it was an incident characteristic of the time, and that similar atrocities were being committed in every nation in Europe without shocking the sensibilities of the most refined and cultivated men of that day, are the only mitigating circumstances which can be suggested.

Thomas Jones, the husband of the woman executed, found, on his release from prison, that his troubles had only begun. He resolved to leave the country, and took passage in the Boston ship “Welcome,” riding at anchor before Charlestown … The weather was calm, yet the ship fell to rolling, and so deep it was feared she would founder … hearing that te husband of the executed witch was on board, between whom and the captain a dispute had arisen as to his passage-money, [the County Court of Boston] sent officers to arrest him, one of them saying “the ship would stand still as soon as he was in prison.” No sooner was the warrant shown, tan the rolling of the ship began to stop, and after the man was in prison it moved no more.‡

* Not to be confused with the first witchcraft execution in all of New England, witchwhich distinction belongs, so far as can be documented, to Alse Young in Connecticut the previous year.

** Winthrop does not date this entry himself. The author of this piece observes in a footnote here that “the date next preceding is June 4, 1648. The true date of the execution was doubtless June 15, as appears in Danforth‘s Almanac for that year.

† John Hale is of particular interest as one of the ministers later involved in the Salem witch trialsproceedings he initially supported, but turned against as they unfolded. He appears in that capacity as a character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; there’s a short YouTube video series exploring his character in that play: Part 1 | Part 2

The work cited here, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, was Hale’s post-Salem critique of witchcraft theology and jurisprudence.

‡ Suggestive evidence indeed. Montague Summers might encourage us to consider the possibility that the Joneses really were witches.

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1811: George Watson, the last horse thief hanged in Scotland

Add comment June 7th, 2011 Headsman

Earlier this year, a gentleman named John Nelson made the news for a 150-mile horse ride in Scotland — tracing the route his great-great-great-grandfather had taken in 1811 on a legendarily Javert-like pursuit of a horse thief.

“I didn’t expect to see you, Knockburnie” a surprised George Watson is supposed to have said to that relentless ancestor, naming place where farmer John Kerr had given the itinerant tinker shelter.

“I didn’t expect you would steal my horse,” Kerr replied.

He’d had a full week in the saddle to think of the right action-hero one-liner for this moment, ever since spontaneously setting out in pursuit of the absconded equine on the morning of the theft.

On this date in 1811 at Ayr, said George Watson paid with his neck for abusing the hospitality of such an implacable victim. He was the last man executed for horse theft in Scotland.

The stolen mare came home with its rightful owner, and an appropriate new name: Tinker.

(The date of the hanging is provided here, and in this broadside catalogue of Scottish executions.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Notable Sleuthing,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland,Theft

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