Posts filed under 'Other Voices'

1945: Pvt. George Edward Smith, on VE Day

Add comment May 8th, 2016 Robert Walsh

(Thanks to Robert Walsh for the guest post. Mr. Walsh’s home page has a trove of articles about historical executions, including another American serviceman hanged at Shepton Mallet. -ed.)

VE (Victory in Europe) marked the official end of hostilities in the European theatre of operations and quite possibly the largest and most joyous celebration in human history.

Unless, of course, you happened to be former US Army Air Forces Private George Edward Smith.

While most of the rest of the world basked in the joy of victory and the relief of the European war being over, Private Smith had a rather more pressing engagement to think about. The rest of the population might be about to enter a brave new world, but Smith was about to depart rather suddenly from the old one.

It was his execution day.

Smith, previously serving at RAF Attlebridge in Norfolk with the US Air Force’s 784th Bombardment Squadron, wouldn’t be celebrating the end of the European war. He’d be watching the clock tick relentlessly down to 1 a.m. when he’d be escorted from the Condemned Cell at Her Majesty’s Prison, Shepton Mallet, Somerset (loaned to the US military for the duration of the war). He’d be sat near the gallows pondering a past that was about to cost him his life while hoping for a reprieve that wouldn’t arrive and a future that was already lost.

While most of the world celebrated, George Edward Smith was going to die.

Smith’s guilt wasn’t in any doubt. Near RAF Attlebridge lay the sleepy Norfolk town of Honingham and the stately home named Honingham Hall (demolished in the 1960s).

Honingham Hall and the adjoining land were home to distinguished diplomat Sir Eric Teichmann, a long-serving figure vastly experienced in the Far East and serving as advisor to the British Embassy at Chungking. He’d noticed, as so many country gentlemen do, that he had a problem with poachers. December 3, 1944 would be the last time he had a problem with anything. It was in the small hours of the morning that he met George Edward Smith.

Smith and his accomplice Private Wijpacha had ‘borrowed’ a pair of M1 carbines from the base armoury and decided to do a spot of illicit hunting. Teichmann, familiar with the fact that poachers aren’t usually violent offenders and will usually run if challenged, heard gunshots from nearby woodland and went out to investigate. He went out unarmed, challenged Smith and Wijpacha — and Smith promptly shot him once through the head with his M1. Both men fled hurriedly back to their base, hoping that their absence wouldn’t be noticed.

Of course, a senior British diplomat lying murdered in the woodland was noticed.

Before long both men were arrested and questioned, during which Smith confessed, a confession he later retracted claiming that it was made under duress. That, not surprisingly, cut no ice whatsoever with either the American military or the British authorities. Smith and Wijpacha were court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge and Wijpacha (who hadn’t fired a shot) received a lengthy prison sentence. Smith, the triggerman, drew the death penalty.

Under the Visiting Forces Act, 1942 the Americans were free to try, imprison and condemn their own criminals independent of the British system of justice, not that it would have made any difference to Smith’s case. Murder was then a capital crime in Britain regardless of the criminal’s nationality. If Smith hadn’t been condemned by an American court-martial then a British trial would have seen the judge don the legendary ‘Black Cap’ and pass what British reporters once called ‘the dread sentence’ especially given the status of the victim.

Smith was promptly shipped to the prison at Shepton Mallet in the county of Somerset to await a mandatory review of his case and, if clemency was refused, execution.

View of Shepton Mallet (left) and its execution shed (right)

Shepton Mallet had been a civilian prison for centuries before being turned over to the British military, who then lent it to the Americans as part of the Visiting Forces Act. Until its final closure a few years ago Shepton Mallet remained the oldest prison in the UK still operational, a dubious distinction now belonging to Dartmoor. There were, however, a few difficulties with the arrangement.

The Americans carried out 18 executions at Shepton Mallet during their tenure between mid-1942 and September, 1945. Two (Alex Miranda and Benjamin Pyegate) were by firing squad, upsetting local people, who knew very well what it meant to live next to a military prison and hear a single rifle volley at 8 a.m. The American military also preferred hanging common criminals to allowing them to be shot like soldiers.

The problems were simple. The locals didn’t like firing squads made no secret of it. Not surprisingly, there were complaints. The US military felt being shot was too good for most of its condemned and the British didn’t like the methods and equipment used by American hangmen, who had acquired a nasty and thoroughly-deserved reputation for using badly-designed scaffolds, the wrong type of rope and the antiquated standard drop instead of a drop length scientifically calculated by the prisoner’s weight.

The British also regarded American hanging equipment as outdated, while American military hangmen John Woods and Joseph Malta were entirely unfamiliar with the British kit. And British hangmen had evolved hanging to almost an art, needing mere seconds to complete the procedure.

Another problem was that the gallows at Shepton Mallet hadn’t been used since March, 1926. By 1942 it was considered unfit for service and needed replacing. A compromise had to be reached, and was.

The Americans could continue executions at Shepton Mallet, but the vast majority (16 out of 18) were performed by British hangmen using a British gallows in an extension built onto the end of one of the cellblocks. The Americans were permitted their usual practice of having the condemned stand strapped, noosed and hooded on the gallows while their death warrant and charge sheet were read out and then being asked for any last words. This caused executioner Albert Pierrepoint, master of the speedy hanging, to complain at what seemed to him a cruel, unnecessary delay in ending the prisoner’s misery.

Pierrepoint also complained about overcrowding in the gallows room during executions. At a British hanging there would be the prisoner, the hangman, his assistant, the prison Governor, the Chief Warder, the doctor, the Chaplain and two or four prison officers. At an American military hanging there were usually twenty or so people clustered around the trapdoors and lever. He felt a hanging should be both quick and perfect and that a crowded gallows room invited disaster.

Hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.

By VE Day the arrangement was well-established. Thomas Pierrepoint, uncle of Albert and brother of Henry (both of whom were also hangmen) performed 13 of the 16 hangings at Shepton Mallet while Albert performed the remaining three when he wasn’t busy elsewhere.

Their assistants were Steve Wade, Herbert Morris and Alexander Riley. Tom Pierrepoint had performed the last hanging at Shepton Mallet in 1926 (that of murderer John Lincoln) assisted by Lionel Mann. While the two firing squads were performed at 8 a.m., the hangings would be carried out at 1 a.m. which was discreet enough not to arouse neighbors’ ire.

Smith’s case was reviewed. Not surprisingly, his appeal was denied as were other requests including (most generously, under the circumstances) one from Lady Teichmann, widow of his victim. His date was set for 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the very day Europe’s guns fell silent. Tom Pierrepoint would do the job assisted by Herbert Morris. Smith was transferred to the Condemned Cell a few days prior to the execution date where he was granted free access to the military Chaplain.

When the time came, while the rest of the population celebrated the arrival of a new world and Smith contemplated his departure from the old one, it went as smoothly as could be expected. Smith was taken from his cell wearing standard military uniform, from which any badges or flashes marking him as a soldier were deliberately removed. Paperwork was completed signifying his dishonourable discharge from the US military as a common criminal and the US military were determined that he should die like one.

Given the delays caused by the reading of the charge sheet and death warrant and Smith being asked for his last words (he apparently had none) it took 22 minutes between Smith being taken from his cell and being certified dead by the prison doctor. Compare this with a standard British execution (minus the bureaucracy and speechifying) where 22 seconds would have been considered twice as long as was needed to do the job. Smith’s punishment, however, wasn’t done yet. Executed American servicemen were initially buried at Brookwood cemetery, but then moved to the notorious ‘Plot E’ of the Oisne-Aisne Military Cemetery in France. Plot E is deliberately hidden from the rest of that cemetery. Its residents have no names on their graves, only numbers. They have no headstones or crosses, only flat stone markers. No American flag hangs in their plot. It doesn’t appear on the plan of the cemetery even today and the markers are placed facing away from the graves of other Americans. Visits to Plot E are still discouraged and it wasn’t until a Freedom of Information request in 2009 that the names of those buried there were released.


A view of the “Dishonored Dead” in Plot E, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. (cc) image by Stranger20824.

Whatever they may have done, and some committed truly dreadful crimes, it seems distasteful to virtually deny their existence and shame them even after death. It also denied their families and friends the chance to visit and grieve, despite the fact that they themselves had committed no crime.

That said, it’s no different to the routine imposed on condemned British criminals. In fact, the British death sentence expressly demanded that inmates be buried in unmarked graves within the prison walls inflicting the same suffering on their friends and relatives. The British hanged were officially designated ‘Property of the Crown,’ many of whom were not properly reburied until after abolition. At many British prisons they still remain in unmarked graves according to the following sentence:

Prisoner at the Bar, it is the sentence of this Court that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.

Remove the prisoner …

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1867: Modiste Villebrun, but not Sophie Boisclair

Add comment May 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1867, Modiste Villebrun was hanged in Sorel, Quebec, in what would be the last execution before Canada became its own country. His partner in crime, Sophie Boisclair, might very well have been executed alongside him had she not been pregnant.

Villebrun, a lumberjack from St. Zephirin, was having an affair with Boisclair and they wanted to get married. They had two slight problems to deal with, in the form of their respective spouses. In those times, divorce was unthinkable. Murder, apparently, was not.

Jeffrey E. Pfeifer details their crimes in his book Death By Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions:

The first victim was Villebrun’s wife, and their plan seemed to work well. No one suspected foul play when the previously healthy woman died, or at least no one could prove anything. Braced by their success, the lovers soon turned their attention to Boisclair’s husband, Francois-Xavier Jutras. Boisclair suggested to her husband that they should allow Villebrun to move in with them since the death of his wife had left him all alone. Jutras agreed to his wife’s request and almost immediately Boisclair began to lace his food with her “special” ingredient. It was not long before the strychnine took effect and Jutras was dead.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, a suspicious doctor demanded an autopsy, which revealed the dead man’s body was saturated with poison. Villebrun and Boisclair soon found themselves arrested.

They were tried separately and both were convicted in short order and sentenced to death. When asked, at sentencing, whether she had anything to say, Boisclair announced she was expecting a baby. She got a temporary reprieve until delivery, and got the opportunity to watch Villebrun’s execution from the window in her cell.

Ten thousand people attended his hanging.

Seven months later, Boisclair gave birth to his child, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

“Boisclair ended up serving 20 years in the penitentiary,” records Pfeifer, “before being released, a broken woman.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Quebec

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1942: Robert “Rattlesnake” James, the last man hanged by California

Add comment May 1st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.

“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”

James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.

Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.

In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.

From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.

In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.

The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.

Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.

James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.

Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.

The insurers paid.

Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.

James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.

In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.

Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.

They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.

Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.

Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?

Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.

He appeared to have gotten away with it again.

However, several months later, it came undone.

A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.

This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”

Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.


Star witness.

The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”

James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.

The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.

And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.

The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.

When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Torture,USA

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1875: William Hole, family tragedy

Add comment April 26th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1875, William Marwood* executed William Hole at Bristol Prison for the murder of his wife the previous summer.

Any murder story is a sad and brutal one, but William Hole strikes this writer as an especially pathetic and pitiful specimen of killer.

As told in Nicola Sly’s book Bristol Murders, William and his wife Alice had been married thirty years by the time of her death. What had initially been a happy relationship went downhill after their only child, a son named James, was killed in an accident. William in particular was inconsolable and attempted suicide.

Further misfortune befell him: three years after his son’s death, William was thrown from a horse-drawn cart and sustained a serious head injury. He was probably brain-damaged, and he definitely suffered from horribly painful, intractable headaches for the rest of his life. His sense of melancholy deepened and he regularly threatened to kill himself. The depression turned into paranoia and delusions. He started hearing voices.

The Baptist parents had been teetotalers through three decades of marriage, but after his head injury William took to alcohol to quiet his demons, and so did his wife. They were constantly quarreling and the more they drank they more they argued.

In spite of the couple’s fights, however, and William’s alcoholism and chronic headaches, he wasn’t a complete basket case. He was, for example, able to run his own successful barge business, employing several men. He was well-liked in the area and didn’t have a reputation for violence or criminality.

Until, that is, the night of August 28, 1874, when sometime after 10:30 p.m. the entire neighborhood was roused by screams of “Murder!”

William, it seems, had come home blind drunk and suffering from another of his headaches. He found Alice slumped on the doorstep, also drunk. He knocked her to the ground, went inside and locked her out. Some time later he asked her, twice, to come indoors. Both times she refused. The second time her husband went out into the street, hit Alice again and went back inside. When he re-emerged he was carrying a knife.

A neighbor witnessed all of this and she watched the bloody events that followed. In Sly’s words,

William lunged at his wife, sending her sprawling to the ground. He then bent over her and made two quick slashes with the carving knife across Alice’s throat… Illuminated by a streetlamp was a ghastly scene. Alice Hole was slumped against the kerb, her arms waving, with blood pumping from her throat. William had once again retreated to his own house and was sitting calmly on his windowsill.

Two female neighbors asked William to help them carry Alice into the house and he refused, saying, “She shan’t come in. Take her anywhere; I have killed her and I shall be hung.” Somehow the women got Alice inside her house by themselves and laid her out on the living room rug. She bled out before the doctor arrived.

When the police showed up, William was ready and waiting for them. He told one officer, “Here I am. I did it. I shall not run away. Take me if you like.” He did, however, ask for one last drink of brandy, since he wouldn’t be having another for a long time. This was refused.

At the police station he said, “This is all through a drunken wife,” and confessed in great detail, even going so far as to mime the murder in front of the police. Then he begged to be allowed to drown himself. Request denied, of course, so he tried and failed to strangle himself with his own handkerchief. Denied alcohol in prison, this habitual drunkard began suffering the symptoms of delirium tremens.

He would later claim he had no memory of the murder, although he never denied having done it.

At trial, Hole’s two attorneys used the defense of insanity, pointing out his prior head injury, his prior suicide attempts, his alcoholism, and the fact that he had been dead drunk at the time of the murder. But, summing up the case, the judge told the jury that if William Hole knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, he had to be found guilty. Given that he had confessed freely and anticipated the likelihood that he “shall be hung,” it would to be hard to argue he didn’t realize the nature and consequences of his actions.

A successful bargeman turned employer and local philanthropist, our troubled soul attracted an energetic campaign for reprieve — but the Home Secretary denied a petition of 30,000 to stay the execution.

* Marwood’s command of the scientific hanging craft was on display as usual. The next morning’s York Herald reported that “Marwood, the executioner, provided a drop of five feet, and Hole being a heavy man, weighing 16 stone, death was instantaneous”

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

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1952: Lloyd Edison Sampsell, the Yacht Bandit

Add comment April 25th, 2016 Robert Elder

(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.)

Thanks for a million things. Thanks for a million things. I’ve got a son, six foot three inches, one hundred and seventy pounds. He’s married, got two kids. He’s in the service overseas right now. … So I’ve left something good—one decent thing out of a dirty life …

— Lloyd Edison Sampsell (aka “the Yacht Bandit”), convicted of robbery and murder, gas chamber, California.
Executed April 25, 1952

Sampsell and an accomplice plundered Pacific Coast banks before stealing away in his yacht. He pilfered a total of $200,000 in his career but died with only $5.27 to his name. Sampsell, age fifty-two, was convicted of killing Arthur W. Smith in a San Diego finance company robbery.

Before the gas took its effect, he turned to the nearly one hundred witnesses gathered and winked.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Theft,USA

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1895: A quintuple lynching in Greenville, Alabama

Add comment April 21st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.

Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.

Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”

Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895

Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.

The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.

On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,USA,Women

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1546: Alice Glaston, age 11

Add comment April 13th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1546, one Alice Glaston was hanged in the town of Much Wenlock in Shopshire, England together with two other prisoners.

The court records for that time and place have been lost, so so the crime for which Alice was hanged is not known. We do know one thing about her, though: she was, at eleven years old, the youngest girl to be executed in England’s history. (But not the youngest person. That honor goes to eight-year-old John Dean, who was hanged for arson in Abingdon in 1629.)

In 2014, Paul Evans released a radio play about Alice’s death titled The Spirit Child.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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1721: Five for returning from transportation

Add comment April 3rd, 2016 Meaghan

On this date in 1721, six men hanged at Tyburn. One, John Cobige, was condemned for highway robbery. The other five were all sent to the gallows for returning from convict transportation.

Although forms of penal transportation dated back as much as a century before this time, 1721 was early years for the regime of systematically shipping convicted criminals to the New World.* The enabling legislation had been implemented only three years before.

Convict transportation allowed condemned prisoners’ death sentences to be remitted for labor service in the British colonies, typically 14 years. One could argue that this second chance at life was a mercy, even if the convicts themselves didn’t always see it that way.

But there was a distinct second category of transported convicts, besides the death-sentenced ones: petty crooks, whose crimes were not capital, who now could be directly sentenced to transportation for a term of 7 years. This was an essential innovation of the Transportation Act, one begged after by London magistrates who perceived a crime wave in the 1710s and wanted tougher measures to purge even minor criminals from the city.

In effect it was an interval of civic death, enforced by the threat of bodily death; its design bears some resemblance to the condition of prisoners in Thomas More‘s Utopia. Returning to England before the full term meant the noose — for both classes of transported convicts, including those whose initial crime was so petty that it didn’t merit execution even in Bloody Code England. This circumstance describes four of the Tyburn hangings on the third of April, 1721:

Of our date’s group, only John Filewood, who had posed as a porter to steal a valuable portmanteau, slashing its owner’s hand in the process, had received an initial death sentence commuted to transportation.

The prospect that a body could be shipped to the New World’s frontier for indentured labor over a handkerchief and executed for the “crime” of returning to hearth and home naturally chafed at the sense of justice. In 1721, the whole convict transportation arrangement was still so new that nobody had become inured to the horror of it. It’s plain from the sermon the Ordinary preached at them that the prisoners in question took their fates quite hard.

I took Occasion to mention to the Malefactors, the Returning from Transportation, which not one of them could be made to believe was sinful. I endeavour’d, to the best of my Capacity, to convince them that they were not faultless and unblameable in the following Manner: If the disobeying the higher Powers, even every Ordinance of Man, be sinful, as forbidden, (1 Pet. 2. 13, 14, and 17, &c.) Then their particular Offence, which is disobeying the Orninence of Man, must be forbidden in Scripture and be sinful.

Another way, that it may be shown is thus. Not only Robbing and Stealing, but whatsoever else is detrimental to the Society we are Members of, is a Sin: Now this particular Action is detrimental to the Nation, (both in the Practice, and also in the Example); and therefore is sinful.

I told them, if they could not be convinc’d that they had sinned, because they were possest of the Notion that the Legislative Power was in this particular too severe; they might read, 1 Pet. 2. 18. Be subject to your Masters, not only to the Gentle, but also to the Froward: But that this was not their Case.

Struggling to supercharge their repentance, the Ordinary arranged to have his resentful charges “carry’d constantly to the Chapel” — twice a day. But

they could not be convinc’d they had done any Harm in Returning from Transportation, [and] scarce any one of them could believe he should dye for it. Henry Woodford in particular undertook (as he had declared in Chapel he would) to demonstrate to me, That the returning to his Wife and young Children, in order to keep them from Starving in his Absence, was so far from being a Crime, that it was his Duty so to act; and that no Law could disingage him, or any thing but Death, from the great Duty of providing for his Family.

Out of all the doomed, Henry “seem’d most to resent his Dying” and complained that they ought better to have been overtly sold as slaves if this was their condition.

Still other terrors stalked these men. The highwayman Cobige, who at age 50 was the only one among them not in the spring of youth, “was in very great Passions of Grief some Days before his Death, because his second Wife, as he told me, was gone away from his Children.” His hanging would thus orphan a 14-year-old daughter and her three siblings all under 10 years of age. John Filewood, an admitted career criminal, regretted “having brought so much Disgrace to his good Mother and Sister, and not taking Warning at the untimely Death of his Brother, who was taken off much earlier in his Sins.”** And Martin Gray, a 22-year-old illiterate fisherman,

was greatly frighted, least his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death, and had sent his Wife to his Uncle to obtain some Money to prevent it. I cannot mention much of his good Behaviour; but before he died, he seem’d very much concerned; and told me, he had taken all Opportunities to hear his Fellow Prisoners read, and to pray with them; and that he hoped God would take Pity on him, a poor ignorant and foolish Fellow, and not throw him into Hell.

* Australia only became the convict destination of choice after the American Revolution closed those ex-colonies to the human traffic.

** James Filewood, who was hanged on Halloween 1718.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1954: Henry Frank Decaillet

Add comment April 2nd, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1954, 52-year-old Henry Frank Decaillet met his death in the gas chamber at San Quentin in California.

Teenage girls seem to have been his type; when he married at 23 years old, his bride was just 14. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By the time of Decaillet’s crime, though, he and his wife had been estranged for years and had separated.

Decaillet, a farmhand, had joined his local Pentecostal Church and there he met Phoebe Ann Bair described as “a pretty brunette large for her age.” Her family was also part of the church. She was thirteen. He fell in love with her, he said, and they entered into a sexual relationship for about a year.

The affair had become the subject of local gossip by mid-1953 and the local police had a chat with Decaillet about the risks associated with having sex with minors. Phoebe herself had cooled towards him. He heard she had been “messing around with some boys” her own age and he became frantic.

On the evening of June 11, Decaillet accosted Phoebe at a Pentecostal Church meeting. She refused to speak to him and he drove to her house and took a .22 caliber rifle out of his car. He’d been carrying it around in his vehicle for some time, debating over what to do. Now he had made up his mind. He went into the Bair home, where three of Phoebe’s siblings and two other children were present. When they saw the gun, they went running out the door for the police.

Decaillet hid in a closet in the house. Phoebe and her parents arrived home at 9:45 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Bair realized they’d left one of their other children behind at the church and left to pick her up, telling Phoebe to stay home and get ready for bed. After her parents left, as Phoebe was standing in the kitchen, Decaillet shot her through a crack in the door. She ran and tried to reach the front door, but he chased after her, grabbed her and shot her three more times in the head.

When the police arrived at the Bair residence, Decaillet was sitting on the sofa with rifle in hand and Phoebe’s head cradled in his lap. He admitted to his crime, saying he’d been planning it for weeks.

He said Phoebe had been leading an immoral life and he had killed her “to stop her from becoming a prostitute.”

Decaillet had little to say for himself after that. Although he was a heavy drinker who’d been treated at the state hospital for alcoholism — in fact he became a Pentecostal as part of his effort to turn over a new leaf — he was sober at the time of the murder. He said he knew what he’d done was illegal and wrong and agreed that he should die for it. He pleaded guilty to murder, without requesting leniency.

Less than a year passed between murder and execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA

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1894: Walter Smith

Add comment March 27th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1894, Walter Smith was hanged at the Nottingham Gaol by executioner James Billington, for the murder of Liverpool nurse Catherine Cross.

Smith invited Cross to the lace factory where he worked so he could show her a piece of equipment he had designed. He was anxious to impress her and, while they were looking at the lace-making machine, he pulled out a gun, waved it around and shouted, seemingly in jest, “Your money or your life!” The gun went off; Catherine was hit. Smith shot her two more times, then fled the scene.

She survived for another few days, and told the police what had occurred.


Tough Sell: from the Derby Mercury, March 14, 1894

The shooter’s best defense angle was to claim an accident, citing an absence of motive, an argument that is more easily made when one has not pulled the trigger repeatedly … of the gun that one has only just bought the day before. Trial testimony indicated that Smith might have had a romantic interest in Cross and it was inferred that he killed her out of jealousy because she was already engaged to marry someone else, but the victim herself seemed perplexed as to what had occurred, and why.

Alison Bruce, writing of the case in her biography Billington: Victorian Executioner, says,

Smith’s trial lasted for three days; his defence that the gun had gone off accidentally was accepted for the first shot but unsurprisingly rejected for the following two.

Billington performed the execution without an assistant and death was instantaneous.

It had been twenty-six years since England’s last public execution, but interest in even the refraction of death’s spectacle was still sufficient at this point to jam the roads near Bagthorpe Jail (today, Nottingham Prison) with a reported 6,000 spectators whose only reward was to see the gaol hoist its black flag signifying completion of the deed.

From the Nottingham Evening Post‘s same-day coverage of the hanging:

The morning mists had not yet risen when the first portions of the crowd that assembled outside the gaol to witness the raising of the black flag took up their position near the entrance gates, but the sun was shining brightly, shining over as beautiful bit of landscape as is ot be found in the immediate neighbourhood of Nottingham. By slow degrees those mists lifted, and the scene without was fresh and cheerful, the songs of the birds adding to the charm … As time wore on the thoroughfares leading to the place became lively with people hurrying to the scene. At half-past seven crowds began to roll up in larger numbers. Some thousands had now arrived, and their general behaviour was not such as to call for very unfavourable comment. It is not too much to say that had the execution been a public one their numbers would have been multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold. It was a holiday morning. If they could not actually see the hanging they could at least witness te sign which assured them that he had paid the penalty of his crime. The elevated embankments at the four crossroads were thickly lined with sight-seers. From these coigns of vantage they could command a good view of the front of the gaol, on the top of which rested the flag-pole. Away in the distance knots of people foregathered, and hundreds climbed the stone wall in the road near the building in spite of the fact that the top had been freshly tarred to prevent mischief to quick hedges above … It was exactly at a quarter to eight when the prison bell first knelled the doom of the unhappy man, and there was an evident increase of excitement. As the last knell sounded the black flag was hoisted, signifying that the exxecution had taken place, and the crowd quickly dispersed.

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

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