(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I am going to tell the truth before God. I am innocent of the charge…My kin people brought me to this, and I want them to pray to meet me in heaven. I have heard they said hanging was too good for me, that I ought to be burned…I hope this poor man will be released, as he is innocent before God.”
(Turning to her sister on the scaffold:)
“I want to be buried by the side of my mother, but they will not allow it. They don’t care what becomes of my body. Good-bye! Sister, good-bye!”
— Margaret Harris, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed October 19, 1883
Servant Harris, age eighteen, was accused of poisoning the family she worked for in order to leave and live with David Dukes, her alleged accomplice, whom she referred to as “this poor man.” Prosecutors said she first added the poison to coffee, which only sickened her mistress, widow Nancy Barnwell, and Barnwell’s two grandchildren. She then added poison, procured from Duke, to rice, killing one of the grandchildren. A commutation was requested from the governor, but it was refused “as there has lately been a perfect avalanche of poisoning cases and an example needed to be made of it,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. At the hanging, “In the Sweet By-and-By” was sung by the four clergymen attending. The condemned and spectators joined in the song.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
I have something of interest to tell —
-Paul Rowland, convicted of murder, California. Executed September 27, 1929
Serving time for a robbery, Rowland approached Alger Morrison, a man whom he claimed as a good friend, and stabbed him with a five-inch homemade knife. Rumors circulated among the inmates that Rowland and Morrison had had a “degenerate” sexual relationship, rumors that Rowland found unendurable. His last words were cut short as the trap sprang from beneath his feet.
On this date in 1987* in the Belarusian SSR, highly prolific serial killer Gennady Modestovich Mikhasevich was put to death by firing squad. Police were able to prove he’d committed 36 murders; he confessed to 43, but the actual total may have been 55 deaths or perhaps more.
“The murders are separate incidents,” the police insisted, “not connected at all.” And so off they went to arrest a suspect, four in fact over a fourteen-year period, one of whom was executed. It was an arcane and inept stance, one that allowed a killer to massacre at least 33 young women in 14 years.
On the surface, Mikhasevich (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | Belarussian) was an ordinary enough man: born in the village of Ist in the Vitebsk Oblast’ in 1947, as an adult he served in the military, graduated college, got a job in a machine repair shop, married and sired two children.
He was conscientious at his work, a caring father, and didn’t drink. He was a Communist Party member — in fact, he was chosen to be secretary of the local committee — and also a member of the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, a sort of Soviet equivalent to the Neighborhood Watch.
But who watches the watchmen?
Mikhasevich committed his first murder on May 14, 1971. He came home from his stint in the army and discovered that his girlfriend back in Ist had left him and married another man.
Devastated, a few days later he decided to hang himself. He was walking to a nearby forest to do the deed, carrying the rope, when he met a woman on the road. Rather had commit suicide, Mikhasevich took his anger out on the stranger, dragging her off into the woods and strangling her.
He must have liked it, because he killed again later that year, and twice more in 1972.
And the list kept growing.
With his early murders, he would wait at an isolated spot, hoping that a woman would chance along. Now he had a car, a red Zaporozhets, so he cruised the roads looking for victims. None of the women ever refused to get into his car. In a backwater like Ist, a ride in a motor vehicle was a real treat. (Keller)
Mikhasevich would drive his victim to an isolated spot and then turn on her. Throttling her into unconsciousness. He’d then rape the woman before strangling her with a rope. Then he’d rob the victim of money and valuables, toss the body at the side of the road and drive off. In common with many serial killers, he often kept souvenirs.
By the 1980s, the police had finally conceded that the murders were related, and witnesses reported the killer drove a red Zaporozhets. Investigators started checking who in the oblast’ owned that particular vehicle, and called on the Voluntary People’s Druzhina for help with their inquiries.
Thus, Mikhasevich began investigating his own crimes.
Authorities were stopping and questioning anyone seen driving a red Zaporozhets, but the investigation went nowhere; the killer appeared to be invisible. Mikhasevich, as a druzhina, was of course aware of where the cops were and when, and he evaded them easily. He claimed fourteen victims in 1984 and twelve more the following year.
He was growing a bit nervous, though, so to derail the investigation he sent a letter to a local newspaper, supposedly written by members of an organization called the “Patriots of Vitebsk.” The letter said the murders were being committed by them and they were trying to rid the oblast’ of “lewd women.”
The police were inclined to write the letter off as a sick joke. But then a note turned up at one of the crime scenes, written in the same hand. It was signed, “the patriots of Vitebsk.”
Galvanized, the cops decided to check the handwriting of all the men living in the oblast. After sorting through 556,000 samples, graphologists found a match: Gennady Mikhasevich.
He was arrested on December 9, 1985, fourteen and a half years after his first murder. As the police were hauling him away in handcuffs, he told his wife, “This is a mistake. I’ll be right back.” Taken to the prosecutor’s office, he was asked, “Are you the patriot of Vitebsk?”
He ultimately broke down and confessed, leading investigators to the place where he’d hidden some of his victims’ belongings. He’d given other items to his wife as gifts; in one case, he even melted down two wedding rings from women he’d murdered and used them to make dental fillings and crowns for his wife.
According to Mikhasevich, although he did rape his victims, he got the most satisfaction out of killing them.
From there on it was a short trip to the firing squad.
The case was widely remembered in the area, not only for the terrible crimes Mikhasevich committed, but for the wrongfully convicted men and the ineptitude of the police. Several officials were dismissed from their posts, and one prosecutor was himself prosecuted for abuse of power.
Who watches the watchmen?
* Many Soviet executions were conducted in secrecy and have elusive dating as a result. In September 25 we’re going with the most commonly attributed date and the one favored at present by Russian and Belarussian Wikipedia. However, alternate dates as late as February 3, 1988 are also out there.
At noon on this date in 1862, William Robert Taylor was hanged at Lancaster Castle before a large crowd (some reports place the number at 100,000) for a shocking spree of violence that took four people’s lives, three of them children. In the 38yearold man’s pocket was a handkerchief which, he was promised, would be delivered to his wife after his death.
The story that ended with Taylor’s execution began in October 1861, when he rented a shop in Manchester, England, from the real estate agency Evan Mellor and Son. The following month, Taylor complained to Mellor about the boiler, saying it was broken and the pipes were leaking and might burst at any time.
Whether Mellor had the repairs done or not was never established for sure. But the fact of the matter is that a few months later, on one Sunday in January, the pipes froze and then burst, killing one of Taylor’s four children: Maria Jane, aged seven. She was badly scalded and suffered horribly before dying.
Taylor asked Mellor to give him £50 in compensation for the tragedy.* Mellor refused.
The two men had already come into conflict with each other because Taylor was months behind in his rent. Now, they were enemies.
The griefstricken family soon ran into further financial trouble. They were short on food, short on coal, and had to bury little Maria in an unmarked pauper’s grave because they couldn’t afford a funeral. Within weeks, creditors showed up to repossess everything they owned, taking even the laundry that was hung out to dry, and snatching a comb right out of of the oldest child’s hand as she was fixing her hair.
The Taylor family’s belongings were not worth enough to pay the back rent, however, and Mellor instituted eviction proceedings. Taylor had no legal or even practical basis for continued resistance, but he had the embittered vitor of pride and injury to pit against his Dickensian landlord. Stubbornly, Taylor insisted on remaining with his family at their home in Britannia Buildings rather than submitting to a workhouse, even though by this time they were hungry and cold and had no furniture and nothing to wear but the clothes they stood in.
And Taylor pere had a seething grudge against Evan Mellor.
On May 16, 1862, Evan Mellor arrived at his offices at St. James’s Chambers, South King Street, and was met in the stairwell by William and his wife, Martha Ann Taylor. Both of them were armed, Martha with a gun and William with a carving knife ten inches long. Without warning, William Taylor stabbed Mellor in the chest eleven times, once penetrating the heart. The dying man stumbled downstairs and a porter saw him and rushed to his aid. In response, Martha Taylor shot the porter. The couple fled from the scene.
The porter recovered from his injury, but Mellor died a short time later. The Taylors were eventually caught and taken to the police station. William’s response to his arrest was, “Thank God, I have now finished my work.” He gave the police the keys to his home at Britannia Buildings and told them to use the smallest one to unlock the back bedroom.
When two police officers arrived at residence and went in the back, they discovered a tragic scene: lying on the floor were the bodies of the Taylors’ three children. They had been washed and their hair had been combed carefully. They were dressed in long, clean white nightgowns with black sashes, and had black ribbons tied around their wrists and necks. Labels pinned on their chests gave their names and ages: Mary Hannah, age 11, Hannah Maria, age 6, and William Robert Jr., age 4. On the back of each of the labels was an identical note reading:
We are six, but one at Harpurhey Cemetery lies, thither our bodies take. Mellor and Son are our cruel murderers but God and our loving parents will avenge us. Love rules here; we are all going to our sister, to part no more.
(The Taylors kept their silence as to the manner of the children’s deaths. Authorities had the little ones autopsied but could never fix on a cause: their organs were healthy, their bodies unbruised, and there were no evident indications of either poisoning or suffocation.)
William was charged with the murder of Evan Mellor, and Martha with being an accessory to murder. (She told police that she and not her husband had killed Mellor, but the evidence proved otherwise.) They appeared at their joint trial dressed in mourning. In court, no mention was made of Mary, Hannah and William Jr.’s deaths.
There was no question of William having committed the crime; multiple witnesses had seen what happened, he’d been arrested with the bloody knife still in his possession, and he had confessed. His lawyer had no alternative but to plead insanity: that William’s mind had snapped under the weight of his grief and financial ruin. The defense attorney stressed that, although his client was a killer, this didn’t mean he would be dangerous in the future:
He asked them carefully to consider the character and circumstances of the murder itself. Horrible as it was, fierce and violent as it was, it was of such a nature as could hardly be accounted for by any of the ordinary mental conditions in which men are placed. They were not dealing with a man who up to this time had given any indication of a ruffianly or brutal disposition; but with a father of the deepest affection who succeeded in inspiring the woman standing beside him with a devotion almost unparalleled. They were not dealing with a bloodthirsty man.
It didn’t work, and the judge’s summation seemed calculated to crush any empathy the jurymen might have felt for the murderer. William, he remarked, was “acting under a strong feeling of resentment” and so he was “a perfectly sane man, acting under a sane impulse.”
Guilty (left), not guilty (right).
In the end, Martha was acquitted of being an accessory to Mellor’s murder after her defense counsel called the eyewitness testimony into question, but William was convicted of murder.
Mary, Hannah and William Jr. would have been consigned to a pauper’s grave like their sister, but the community took up a subscription and raised £60 to pay for their funerals and a fine headstone, next to where Maria is buried in Harpurhey Cemetery.
Their father lies buried elsewhere, in a mass grave with other executed convicts.
Phrenology fans will surely enjoy the Liverpool Mercury‘s September 15, 1862 gallows reportage.
Hanged along with Taylor on the same occasion was a Lancashire trade unionist named John Ward. Ward and some fellow bricklayers had by cover of darkness destroyed some 18,000 bricks belonging to a combative boss. Britain’s grand tradition of machine wrecking was by this point no longer a capital crime by its own right, but returning from a satisfactory operation the masked workers were challenged by two policemen in Ashton-under-Lyne and one of those cops was shot dead in the resulting affray. Ward paid that forfeit.
* Historical inflation measurements get a little dodgy when the increments are centuries, but this 50 quid would equate to a demand for several thousand pounds today.
On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.
The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.
In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.
A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-on-Rats, an arsenic-based poison, in the well.
Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)
New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.
On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-in-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.
Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.
On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.
Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.
For this date’s post we welcome back to Executed Today the prolific pen of Alexandre Dumas, here working on the “fictional” side of his familiar historical fiction genre.
Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip (La Tulipe Noire) begins with the very real Aug. 20, 1672 lynching of Dutch statesmen Cornelis and Johann de Witt, and from that point unfolds the story of a fictional godson, Cornelius van Baerle — whose green thumb will nurture the titular flower along with a love for the jailer’s daughter Rosa. (To the very great wrath of van Baerle’s neighbor and murderous rival gardener, Isaac Boxtel.)
Dumas has already sown both seeds when he dates his narrative via van Baerle’s will, written when the fictional main character is in danger of succumbing to the same cataclysm that swallowed up his godfather: already smitten with Rosa, he purposes to bequeath her the bulbs, whose rare product will be worth a bounty.
On this day, the 23d of August, 1672, being on the point of rendering, although innocent, my soul to God on the scaffold, I bequeath to Rosa Gryphus the only worldly goods which remain to me of all that I have possessed in this world, the rest having been confiscated; I bequeath, I say, to Rosa Gryphus three bulbs, which I am convinced must produce, in the next May, the Grand Black Tulip for which a prize of a hundred thousand guilders has been offered by the Haarlem Society, requesting that she may be paid the same sum in my stead, as my sole heiress, under the only condition of her marrying a respectable young man of about my age, who loves her, and whom she loves, and of her giving the black tulip, which will constitute a new species, the name of Rosa Barlaensis, that is to say, hers and mine combined.
So may God grant me mercy, and to her health and long life!
Cornelius van Baerle.
And having done this, van Baerle is escorted directly to the scaffold, where we pick up Dumas’s narrative courtesy of Gutenberg.org:
Chapter 12: The Execution
Cornelius had not three hundred paces to walk outside the prison to reach the foot of the scaffold. At the bottom of the staircase, the dog quietly looked at him whilst he was passing; Cornelius even fancied he saw in the eyes of the monster a certain expression as it were of compassion.
The dog perhaps knew the condemned prisoners, and only bit those who left as free men.
The shorter the way from the door of the prison to the foot of the scaffold, the more fully, of course, it was crowded with curious people.
These were the same who, not satisfied with the blood which they had shed three days before, were now craving for a new victim.
And scarcely had Cornelius made his appearance than a fierce groan ran through the whole street, spreading all over the yard, and re-echoing from the streets which led to the scaffold, and which were likewise crowded with spectators.
The scaffold indeed looked like an islet at the confluence of several rivers.
In the midst of these threats, groans, and yells, Cornelius, very likely in order not to hear them, had buried himself in his own thoughts.
And what did he think of in his last melancholy journey?
Neither of his enemies, nor of his judges, nor of his executioners.
He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.
“It is only one stroke of the axe,” said the philosopher to himself, “and my beautiful dream will begin to be realised.”
Only there was still a chance, just as it had happened before to M. de Chalais, to M. de Thou, and other slovenly executed people, that the headsman might inflict more than one stroke, that is to say, more than one martyrdom, on the poor tulip-fancier.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, Van Baerle mounted the scaffold not the less resolutely, proud of having been the friend of that illustrious John, and godson of that noble Cornelius de Witt, whom the ruffians, who were now crowding to witness his own doom, had torn to pieces and burnt three days before.
He knelt down, said his prayers, and observed, not without a feeling of sincere joy, that, laying his head on the block, and keeping his eyes open, he would be able to his last moment to see the grated window of the Buytenhof.
At length the fatal moment arrived, and Cornelius placed his chin on the cold damp block. But at this moment his eyes closed involuntarily, to receive more resolutely the terrible avalanche which was about to fall on his head, and to engulf his life.
A gleam like that of lightning passed across the scaffold: it was the executioner raising his sword.
Van Baerle bade farewell to the great black tulip, certain of awaking in another world full of light and glorious tints.
Three times he felt, with a shudder, the cold current of air from the knife near his neck, but what a surprise! he felt neither pain nor shock.
He saw no change in the colour of the sky, or of the world around him.
Then suddenly Van Baerle felt gentle hands raising him, and soon stood on his feet again, although trembling a little.
He looked around him. There was some one by his side, reading a large parchment, sealed with a huge seal of red wax.
And the same sun, yellow and pale, as it behooves a Dutch sun to be, was shining in the skies; and the same grated window looked down upon him from the Buytenhof; and the same rabble, no longer yelling, but completely thunderstruck, were staring at him from the streets below.
Van Baerle began to be sensible to what was going on around him.
His Highness, William, Prince of Orange, very likely afraid that Van Baerle’s blood would turn the scale of judgment against him, had compassionately taken into consideration his good character, and the apparent proofs of his innocence.
His Highness, accordingly, had granted him his life.
Cornelius at first hoped that the pardon would be complete, and that he would be restored to his full liberty and to his flower borders at Dort.
But Cornelius was mistaken. To use an expression of Madame de Sevigne, who wrote about the same time, “there was a postscript to the letter;” and the most important part of the letter was contained in the postscript.
In this postscript, William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, condemned Cornelius van Baerle to imprisonment for life. He was not sufficiently guilty to suffer death, but he was too much so to be set at liberty.
Cornelius heard this clause, but, the first feeling of vexation and disappointment over, he said to himself —
“Never mind, all this is not lost yet; there is some good in this perpetual imprisonment; Rosa will be there, and also my three bulbs of the black tulip are there.”
But Cornelius forgot that the Seven Provinces had seven prisons, one for each, and that the board of the prisoner is anywhere else less expensive than at the Hague, which is a capital.
His Highness, who, as it seems, did not possess the means to feed Van Baerle at the Hague, sent him to undergo his perpetual imprisonment at the fortress of Loewestein, very near Dort, but, alas! also very far from it; for Loewestein, as the geographers tell us, is situated at the point of the islet which is formed by the confluence of the Waal and the Meuse, opposite Gorcum.
Van Baerle was sufficiently versed in the history of his country to know that the celebrated Grotius was confined in that castle after the death of Barneveldt; and that the States, in their generosity to the illustrious publicist, jurist, historian, poet, and divine, had granted to him for his daily maintenance the sum of twenty-four stivers.
“I,” said Van Baerle to himself, “I am worth much less than Grotius. They will hardly give me twelve stivers, and I shall live miserably; but never mind, at all events I shall live.”
Then suddenly a terrible thought struck him.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how damp and misty that part of the country is, and the soil so bad for the tulips! And then Rosa will not be at Loewestein!”
Chapter 13: What was going on all this Time in the Mind of one of the Spectators
Whilst Cornelius was engaged with his own thoughts, a coach had driven up to the scaffold. This vehicle was for the prisoner. He was invited to enter it, and he obeyed.
His last look was towards the Buytenhof. He hoped to see at the window the face of Rosa, brightening up again.
But the coach was drawn by good horses, who soon carried Van Baerle away from among the shouts which the rabble roared in honour of the most magnanimous Stadtholder, mixing with it a spice of abuse against the brothers De Witt and the godson of Cornelius, who had just now been saved from death.
This reprieve suggested to the worthy spectators remarks such as the following:—
“It’s very fortunate that we used such speed in having justice done to that great villain John, and to that little rogue Cornelius, otherwise his Highness might have snatched them from us, just as he has done this fellow.”
Among all the spectators whom Van Baerle’s execution had attracted to the Buytenhof, and whom the sudden turn of affairs had disagreeably surprised, undoubtedly the one most disappointed was a certain respectably dressed burgher, who from early morning had made such a good use of his feet and elbows that he at last was separated from the scaffold only by the file of soldiers which surrounded it.
Many had shown themselves eager to see the perfidious blood of the guilty Cornelius flow, but not one had shown such a keen anxiety as the individual just alluded to.
The most furious had come to the Buytenhof at daybreak, to secure a better place; but he, outdoing even them, had passed the night at the threshold of the prison, from whence, as we have already said, he had advanced to the very foremost rank, unguibus et rostro — that is to say, coaxing some, and kicking the others.
And when the executioner had conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, the burgher, who had mounted on the stone of the pump the better to see and be seen, made to the executioner a sign which meant —
“It’s a bargain, isn’t it?”
The executioner answered by another sign, which was meant to say —
“Be quiet, it’s all right.”
This burgher was no other than Mynheer Isaac Boxtel, who since the arrest of Cornelius had come to the Hague to try if he could not get hold of the three bulbs of the black tulip.
Boxtel had at first tried to gain over Gryphus to his interest, but the jailer had not only the snarling fierceness, but likewise the fidelity, of a dog. He had therefore bristled up at Boxtel’s hatred, whom he had suspected to be a warm friend of the prisoner, making trifling inquiries to contrive with the more certainty some means of escape for him.
Thus to the very first proposals which Boxtel made to Gryphus to filch the bulbs which Cornelius van Baerle must be supposed to conceal, if not in his breast, at least in some corner of his cell, the surly jailer had only answered by kicking Mynheer Isaac out, and setting the dog at him.
The piece which the mastiff had torn from his hose did not discourage Boxtel. He came back to the charge, but this time Gryphus was in bed, feverish, and with a broken arm. He therefore was not able to admit the petitioner, who then addressed himself to Rosa, offering to buy her a head-dress of pure gold if she would get the bulbs for him. On this, the generous girl, although not yet knowing the value of the object of the robbery, which was to be so well remunerated, had directed the tempter to the executioner, as the heir of the prisoner.
In the meanwhile the sentence had been pronounced. Thus Isaac had no more time to bribe any one. He therefore clung to the idea which Rosa had suggested: he went to the executioner.
Isaac had not the least doubt that Cornelius would die with the bulbs on his heart.
But there were two things which Boxtel did not calculate upon:—
Rosa, that is to say, love;
William of Orange, that is to say, clemency.
But for Rosa and William, the calculations of the envious neighbour would have been correct.
But for William, Cornelius would have died.
But for Rosa, Cornelius would have died with his bulbs on his heart.
Mynheer Boxtel went to the headsman, to whom he gave himself out as a great friend of the condemned man; and from whom he bought all the clothes of the dead man that was to be, for one hundred guilders; rather an exorbitant sum, as he engaged to leave all the trinkets of gold and silver to the executioner.
But what was the sum of a hundred guilders to a man who was all but sure to buy with it the prize of the Haarlem Society?
It was money lent at a thousand per cent, which, as nobody will deny, was a very handsome investment.
The headsman, on the other hand, had scarcely anything to do to earn his hundred guilders. He needed only, as soon as the execution was over, to allow Mynheer Boxtel to ascend the scaffold with his servants, to remove the inanimate remains of his friend.
The thing was, moreover, quite customary among the “faithful brethren,” when one of their masters died a public death in the yard of the Buytenhof.
A fanatic like Cornelius might very easily have found another fanatic who would give a hundred guilders for his remains.
The executioner also readily acquiesced in the proposal, making only one condition — that of being paid in advance.
Boxtel, like the people who enter a show at a fair, might be disappointed, and refuse to pay on going out.
Boxtel paid in advance, and waited.
After this, the reader may imagine how excited Boxtel was; with what anxiety he watched the guards, the Recorder, and the executioner; and with what intense interest he surveyed the movements of Van Baerle. How would he place himself on the block? how would he fall? and would he not, in falling, crush those inestimable bulbs? had not he at least taken care to enclose them in a golden box — as gold is the hardest of all metals?
Every trifling delay irritated him. Why did that stupid executioner thus lose time in brandishing his sword over the head of Cornelius, instead of cutting that head off?
But when he saw the Recorder take the hand of the condemned, and raise him, whilst drawing forth the parchment from his pocket — when he heard the pardon of the Stadtholder publicly read out — then Boxtel was no more like a human being; the rage and malice of the tiger, of the hyena, and of the serpent glistened in his eyes, and vented itself in his yell and his movements. Had he been able to get at Van Baerle, he would have pounced upon him and strangled him.
And so, then, Cornelius was to live, and was to go with him to Loewestein, and thither to his prison he would take with him his bulbs; and perhaps he would even find a garden where the black tulip would flower for him.
Boxtel, quite overcome by his frenzy, fell from the stone upon some Orangemen, who, like him, were sorely vexed at the turn which affairs had taken. They, mistaking the frantic cries of Mynheer Isaac for demonstrations of joy, began to belabour him with kicks and cuffs, such as could not have been administered in better style by any prize-fighter on the other side of the Channel.
Blows were, however, nothing to him. He wanted to run after the coach which was carrying away Cornelius with his bulbs. But in his hurry he overlooked a paving-stone in his way, stumbled, lost his centre of gravity, rolled over to a distance of some yards, and only rose again, bruised and begrimed, after the whole rabble of the Hague, with their muddy feet, had passed over him.
One would think that this was enough for one day, but Mynheer Boxtel did not seem to think so, as, in addition to having his clothes torn, his back bruised, and his hands scratched, he inflicted upon himself the further punishment of tearing out his hair by handfuls, as an offering to that goddess of envy who, as mythology teaches us, wears a head-dress of serpents.
On this day in 1774, convicted robber Patrick Madan and two other men went to Tyburn to be hanged for their crimes. Madan, however, was reprieved at the literal last minute.
He was standing at the dread triple tree with the noose already around his neck, the final prayers over, when a man in the crowd, Amos Merritt, cried out that Madan was innocent.
Confounded, the authorities ordered a short stay. For almost an hour the condemned men stood at the gallows with the ropes draped over their necks. Finally Madan was returned to prison and the others were hanged.
When brought before the magistrate, Merritt claimed he himself was guilty of the robbery Madan was convicted of. Madan was pardoned and Merritt was charged with the crime instead.
Quite what had happened remained a mystery. Many claimed that Amos Merritt, hardly the repentant suddenly feeling the weight of his conscience as another man stood ready to be hanged for his crime, was really one of Madan’s own criminal crew who had put his neck on the line for his gang leader. Others maintained that Merritt really was guilty and had been forced by the many underworld characters who admired Madan to come forward and save him.
The saga did not end there. As it turned out Amos Merritt would not be required to make the ultimate sacrifice on this occasion, as when the case was retried at the Old Bailey, Merritt was acquitted. By then it was impossible for any jury to know who to believe.
If Merritt learned a lesson from this escapade it seems to have been overconfidence in his ability to game the system. Within a month of his release he committed another robbery, and was hanged less than five months later.
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.
It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.
The Supremacy of Nerve
On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.
A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance
Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.
In the Palace of Death
Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.
Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]
This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.
The Deepening Shadows
Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.
August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”
When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.
While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.
At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.
On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.
In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.
Forty-six-year-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.
Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.
The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.
On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.
The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.
By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”
“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”
At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.
Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.
Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”
When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.
The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.
Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.
On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.
While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.
Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.
Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.
There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summingup about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s goresoaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”
In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.
Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.
On this date in 1912, George Shelton and his brother-in-law John Bailey were executed in Nashville, Tennessee for the murders of Ben Pettigrew and his two children. One of them can be identified as a daughter named Pearl. The other child’s identity is unclear; it may be another, unnamed daughter, or a son named Fred.
This is an unusual case because, in the Jim Crow South, these two white men had faced the death penalty for killing black victims, and their crime was characterized by many as a lynching.
Ben Pettigrew was a successful cotton farmer from Clifton, Tennessee. He had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, “unequaled among the colored population of this section of the country.” In fact, he was “regarded as highly as any member of his race in the south.”
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1912
On December 5, 1911, Ben and his two children were taking a load of seed cotton to a cotton gin in Savannah, Tennessee when their wagon was ambushed on the road by four white men.
Accounts about the murder differ as to what exactly occurred: one story is that Ben was shot and his two children hanged, and their bodies put on top of the wagon and set on fire with the cotton. Another has it that all three victims were tied, alive, on top of the load of cotton and then it was set on fire.
Also unclear is the motive for the crime, if there was any motive at all. According to some stories, the killers may have been white land tenants angry that blacks were occupying their former homes. It’s possible that they were jealous of the Pettigrew family’s respectability and economic success.
Other farmers in the area saw the fire and hurried to extinguish it, arriving just in time to see the four suspects run off into the woods. A posse assembled to hunt down the killers; it started out with 50 men and quickly grew to over 300 volunteers, with bloodhounds. In due course two people were captured; the others got away.
Little is known about Shelton and Bailey, farmhands described by the NAACP as “friendless, ignorant white boys” — a label borne out by the garbled written confession they made:
To the, Publick, and the, honer, cort, of decaturville, Tenn; we was assoated with Mr. J.M. Hill he read the Bible, to us, and talked to us, about our soles, and, all so Read To Us in St. Mathews the 10th Chapter and the, 26 Verce, that thire was nothing covered but, what would, be uncovered and nothing hid what would, be knowen and, he talked to us about telling the truth at the blessed Jesues, said that to tell the truth and, bleave the truth and it would make us, free and we do know that we did a great rong but god has forvie us, as Mr, Hill, had us us to go to god and, he has forgive us, and now we with up stretched, ormes, ask the clemences, and mercies, of, the, People, and, the, cort, to do all the cane, for, us, as we, air both maried boyes and, i Georg Shelton aire onley 18 yares, old. and, never, Had, the, chence, to go to school and raised up by a Good Fother. And, Oh, My, Der, ole, Mother, and my, Wife, and, Little, Baby! If, i, Had Onley of, Knowen at the start what all this would of, cause, me, i would Not, of done, it, for aney amount, of, Money, But, Mr, Lige Scott, tole, me to; That ole Ben ort to be, Killed, and got, out, of, the neighborhood. And John Bailey, is, A Brothernlaw of, George Shelton, and, is 24, yares, old, and His Parints, Died, when he was a Little Boy, and, he, was raised up heare and, yonder, and, kik from Piller, to Post and, we Both, have, no Egacation, and never relised what a black Path, of, sin we have been travling, till Mr. J.M. Hill, Read, the Bible to us, And Praid, for and with us, and then we begin to Relise what we had done.